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 3
"Persistence of Memory"
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Jaymie Wagner
© 2018, 2022 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Fleet Carrier Kaga, late of the Fleet of Fog and now the sole constituent of the White Rose Fleet's First Carrier Division, was not accustomed to disorientation. Even when she and the others had awakened at Midway with no memory of how they came to be there or what they were supposed to be doing, she had remained calm, collected, and in control of as much of the situation as possible. During the chaotic scramble that was Operation AF, she kept the mission goals squarely in the center of her mind for all but a few moments—moments which she still did not understand.
Upon reflection, what she felt now was rather like the fleeting sense of distracting unease that had swept over her during her last deployment from Midway. Then, she'd had the disquieteing sense that she knew the place, the waters she was plying, in some deeply personal way. This time, it wasn't the place that felt unaccountably, unnervingly familiar. It was the company.
After spiriting her out of the conference room in the Admin Building, the gaggle of Einheri carriers had swept her out of the Naval Base entirely and through the streets of New Yokosuka. Only a block or so from the base gates, along what seemed to be one of the port city's main commercial streets, they arrived in front of a white-painted establishment with red trim and gleaming chrome-and-glass doors. Jutting out from the shop's frontage over the sidewalk was a large illuminated sign emblazoned with a stylized graphic of a Japanese-style castle and what Kaga took to be the name of the restaurant.
"This is the place!" Akagi declared cheerfully.
Smiling mischievously, Hiryū opened one of the double doors while Sōryū did the same with the other, and the two bowed the remaining three past them in practiced unison. Still utterly bemused, Kaga let Akagi and Shōkaku lead her through them. Inside, the empty restaurant was decorated in what Kaga was not equipped to interpret as mid-twentieth-century American diner style: white tile, quilted steel, red-topped tables, red vinyl chairs and booths trimmed in chrome, with a long counter along one wall and brightly lit menus above it.
There were only a few people in the restaurant at this odd hour: a handful of customers scattered around and the staff, a half-dozen crisply uniformed young people who looked human apart from their prominently pointed ears. One of these promptly installed the carriers in the large corner booth at the back, whisking away a cardboard tent sign reading reserved as she did so, while another handed around bundles of flatware wrapped up in paper napkins.
"The usual, boss?" the first asked of Akagi, pen and pad at the ready.
"Better make it a double," said Hiryū with a wink before Akagi could reply. "We've got Kaga-senpai in the house today!"
"No kidding?" asked the waitress (Saga, according to her nametag), her flaxen eyebrows rising. "Wow! You guys have been waiting for her for a while, haven't you?"
"Going on 20 years now," Sōryū confirmed, grinning.
"Well, congratulations!" Saga declared cheerfully. "Welcome to Valhalla at last, Lady Kaga."
Hearing her senior so addressed, Hiryū unsuccessfully suppressed a snort of laughter, which made Sōryū giggle and earned them both a puzzled glance from the waitress and a faint, exasperated tut from Akagi. Seeing that she wasn't going to get any useful explanation out of either member of 2CarDiv, Saga chose to ignore them and focus instead on the newcomer.
"... Thank you," said Kaga hesitantly.
"She's still a little confused," said Shōkaku with a kind smile.
"This place will do that to a person on the first day," Saga agreed, nodding. "Don't worry—you're home now!" she added with a grin to Kaga, then told the table generally, "I'll get your order going and be right back with your drinks."
"Home," Kaga mused, frowning thoughtfully, as the waitress bustled off to the kitchen.
She said nothing else of note for quite a while, sunk in a reverie, while large fuel-drum-shaped mugs of some unidentifiable but appetizing soft drink appeared at the table, followed in fairly quick succession by enormous half-barrels of fried potatoes, squeeze bottles of ketchup that would have put a casual observer in mind of fire extinguishers, and manhole-cover-sized platters piled high with cheeseburgers wrapped in white waxed paper. Cajoled on by her cheerfully chattering colleagues, Kaga ate and drank mechanically, scarcely registering flavors or textures, while her mind raced.
This is so strange, she thought. Logically, I cannot be the person they think I am. I am a fleet carrier of the Fog; according to my Union Core's ID number, I was constructed in 2032. These people should be strangers to me. And yet...
Looking around the table, she watched the others munch their fries and burgers, listened to their cheery conversation, and knew that, logical as it might be, that expectation was wrong. These were not strangers; they were her colleagues, her comrades—her fellow carriers of the Kidō Butai, Admiral Nagumo's Mobile Force.
And yet I know them, Kaga admitted to herself. I belong with them. This is as it should be, this is right. Except...
"Where is Zuikaku?"
The conversation came to a sudden halt as Kaga spoke. The other carriers turned to look at her, then glanced at each other, uncertain how to reply.
"She, uh..." Hiryū began, then trailed awkwardly off.
"I think she..." Sōryū tried, but got no further.
With a knowing little smile, Shōkaku patted Kaga's arm and said, "Wait here. I'll get her."
In the gymnasium adjoining the main 14th Einherjar Navy Group barracks, battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) worked the heavy bag, her face set in a contemplative frown not entirely unlike Kaga's, while archaic rock music sounded from an equally archaic cassette player standing on a stool nearby.
As she pummeled the bag, Iowa wondered how many kanmusu were doing exactly what she was doing, each in their own way: busying themselves with their meditative activities of choice while they worked on digesting all they had seen and heard in the morning briefing, weighed up their priorities, and considered their next moves.
She didn't have to wonder what her three sisters were up to. She knew perfectly well what they would be doing. By now, Jersey was almost certainly rigged up and out at the gunnery range with Vengeance, the pair of them blasting the crap out of target drones with identical grim expressions, saying nothing. Mo would be over at the Japanese battleships' wardroom, doing tea and calligraphy with Kongō's sister Haruna, talking about the "other" Kongō and Yamato, and discussing what Haruna's and Yamato's volatile sisters were likely to do about them. And Wisky... Iowa would give even money that Wisky went back to her quarters and racked out. She always claimed to do her best thinking in her bunk.
Iowa wondered whether any of them would decide to try and go back. How would that even work? All four of them were museum ships, their original hulls still afloat back in Midgard. Granted, both Mo and Iowa herself had been sunk in the 21st century, evidently mistaken for operational warships by the Fog, but both were raised after the Fog War was over and restored. They still existed as ships, not 20 generations' worth of razor blades and rebar.
Hell, that just makes me want to try it, Iowa thought, driving home a flurry of jabs. It'd be a hoot to visit myself. Take the tour, maybe buy a couple of T-shirts...
She came back from her reverie at the sound of the nearby door. Pausing in her battering of the bag, she looked up to see Fubuki entering the gym, dressed appropriately, a duffel bag slung over her shoulder.
Iowa had been bemused when, years before—not long after the Embodiment—Fubuki had asked if she would teach her to box. Not only did that not seem like something a ship like Fubuki would be all that interested in, the difference in their physical size and strength would make it a dicey proposition for the destroyer, however careful Iowa might be. The kid was so damn earnest, though, that Iowa agreed to give it a try, and somewhat to the surprise of both, they clicked as coach and pupil. Since then, they'd met up in the gym at least once a week to go over training fundamentals and spar.
A lot of the other shipgirls were still as taken aback by the arrangement as Iowa had been when it was proposed. Fubuki's sister ships and most of her other IJN colleagues thought it was a weird thing for one of their number to do, and more than a few of Iowa's fellow Americans agreed. New Jersey, in particular, couldn't get her head around it.
"Why do you always spar with that Jap destroyer?" she asked once, in the showers after a sortie. "I mean, she's got balls, I won't deny that, but she's still just a tin can. You know damn well if you screw up in the ring, you'll probably kill her. Hell, it's happened a couple times. Besides, she doesn't even compete, so what's the point?"
"You don't get it, Jersey," Iowa replied, shaking her head. "Bucky's got grit. She doesn't need to compete. She does it for herself."
"Eh, whatever. IJN ships are all crazier than a bag'a snakes anyway," Jersey grumbled.
"I heard that," Musashi remarked from the next row of showerheads over.
Returning to the present, Iowa suspended operations and sauntered over to greet her newly arrived training buddy with a cheery, "Heya, kiddo." She knew perfectly well that Fubuki was more than a decade her senior, having been launched in the mid-1920s, but she didn't look it, and Iowa could never shake off the habit. "You're running a little late today—not that I can blame you," the blonde battleship added with a winking grin. "Helluva meeting this morning, huh?"
"Mm," said Fubuki, nodding. The destroyer sounded distant, muted.
Iowa looked more closely, and she didn't like what she saw. For the last little while, Fubuki had been looking progressively tired, worn—like she wasn't getting enough sleep. At first, Iowa had chalked it up to her smaller, younger-looking colleague's insane work ethic, which was legendary even among the notoriously diligent destroyers of the Imperial Japanese Navy, but now she had the strong suspicion that there was something deeper going on. Even when she was tired, or banged up after a rough fleet exercise, Fubuki was always bright, always cheerful. Ever conscious of her position as the first of the Special Type destroyers, she always strove to set an example for her sisters, to say nothing of the vast armada of younger cousins who followed her epoch-defining class into navies all over the world. She tried never to let her fatigue or pain show.
But it was showing now—almost radiating from her in visible waves. Her skin was sallow, her eyes ringed with circles so dark they looked like bruises, and there was no spark in her eyes. She didn't just look tired, she looked exhausted, at the very limit of her endurance.
"Are you OK?" Iowa asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"I..." Fubuki hesitated, then shook her head vigorously. "I'm fine. Just a little tired. I haven't been sleeping well." Meeting Iowa's concerned gaze, she gave a wan little smile that was trying to be more than it was and went on, "The dream, you know?"
"Ah." Iowa nodded, though in point of fact, she didn't know, not firsthand.
It was universally understood in the 14th that kanmusu who were sunk in battle or scrapped occasionally had vivid, terrifying dreams of their First Deaths; the Dying-Dream, the medicos called it, when they weren't calling it by some High Draconic name Iowa could never remember. Iowa, her sisters, and a lucky handful of others—those whose hulls were preserved somewhere—didn't have them. Iowa's last memory of her first life was not of blowing up, or sinking, or being torn apart by the breakers. It was more like... going to sleep, snugged up to a nice, comfortable pier in Long Beach.
She knew about Fubuki's Dying-Dream, though. The destroyer had told her about it before, at one of their morning sparring sessions on a day after she'd had it. She'd been sunk by gunfire near Guadalcanal in '42, just a couple of months after Iowa herself was launched. A night battle, and a total clusterfuck from everything Iowa had heard about how it went down—both sides taken by surprise by their sudden meeting in the dark, with mass confusion and no one completely certain they were even shooting at the enemy until the bloody business was well underway.
"It doesn't usually hit you this hard, does it?" Iowa wondered. "I mean, I've seen you the morning after the dream before, but this time you look rough."
Fubuki looked like she was about to pull herself up and soldier through, like she usually did, but then she sighed and shook her head, looking at the floor.
"No," she admitted. "I'm mostly used to it these days. Except... it wasn't just last night." She raised her dark-rimmed eyes to Iowa's and told her matter-of-factly, "I've had it every night for the last eight nights. And... it's changing."
Iowa blinked. "Eight nights?" she demanded, eyebrows rising. "That ain't normal, is it? Maybe you oughtta see Doc Vestal. Or that new girl who came in with Admiral Ravenhair's group, she's from your own fleet."
Fubuki shook her head. "What would she know about it?" she asked rhetorically. "She's not really an IJN ship, she's from the Fog."
"Well, yeah, that's true," conceded Iowa. "Still, I mean... you have to do something, don't you? This keeps up, it'll eat you alive."
"Don't you think I know that?" Fubuki snapped. Then, blinking, she shook her head again. "Sorry. I don't know where that came from."
"Don't sweat it, I do," Iowa told her. She led Fubuki over to the bench next to the heavy bag, sat her down, and then crouched in front of her so their eyes were on a level. "Tell me about it. You said it's changing. Changing how? Maybe there's something in that we can work with."
"I..." Fubuki hesitated again, then unzipped her bag, rummaged in it, and took out a notebook covered in black oilcloth. A ribbon sewn into the spine marked the first blank page; Fubuki opened the book to that spot, then leafed back a few pages and handed it to Iowa. "It's probably easier if you just read this."
I have this dream sometimes.
It's midnight on the 12th of October, 1942, off Cape Esperance. We're supporting a supply operation. While Admiral Jojima and his force land supplies and reinforcements for our troops on Guadalcanal, Cruiser Division 6 under Admiral Gotō—Aoba, Furutaka, Kinugasa—is tasked with shelling the airfield on the island, which the Americans have started calling Henderson Field since they took it from the Army back in August. My sister Hatsuyuki and I are their escorts.
We're north of Guadalcanal itself, entering the strait between it and Savo Island, on our way to the AO, and as far as we know we have the night to ourselves. The Americans have never given us much trouble at night, so we aren't expecting much from them tonight either. It's pitch-black, the moon has long since set, but our lookouts are well-trained for night operations and have the latest optics, so we're confident. So confident that no one worries about the Americans' radar.
We don't have radar. The Navy doesn't trust such newfangled contraptions. Training and guts, they say, are all we need; and we believe them, because after all, that's all the Imperial Navy has ever needed.
The Americans find us just before midnight. Admiral Gotō thinks they're friendly ships, maybe part of Admiral Jojima's force that's gotten lost, and orders the recognition signals flashed from his flagship, heavy cruiser Aoba. The Americans must appreciate that; it gives them an even better target. Their cruisers open up, blasting two of Aoba's turrets to scrap and killing most of the men on the flag bridge, including the Admiral.
So now the rest of us understand what's happening even less.
While we scramble to figure out what's going on and take useful actions, the Americans turn their attention to Furutaka, who's next in line, and beat her up so badly that she'll sink within a few hours.
Then it's my turn.
I'm a Special Type destroyer. I was the first Special Type destroyer, a revolutionary ship when I was launched in 1927, and I'm still a very capable combatant 15 years later, if I do say so myself... but I'm still only a destroyer. I was never built to stand up to the firepower of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and five Yankee destroyers.
If the battle had unfolded differently, I wouldn't have had to. But the Americans are on our right, they think both Aoba and Furutaka are sinking, and my station is to starboard of Aoba. Hatsuyuki is over on the other side, to port, so now she's behind Aoba and the smokescreen she's laying to help the Americans think she's done for. Kinugasa's turned to port as well, heading away from the Americans' line... so the only thing they all have to shoot at for the moment is me.
Their massed shellfire rakes me from bow to stern, blows me to pieces—wrecks my guns, my torpedo launchers, my engines, sets me on fire, holes me in so many places I probably couldn't have stayed afloat even if the pumps worked, which they don't. In minutes I'm stopped, awash, my crew half dead and the survivors abandoning ship. Out of the fight; out of the war; on my way out of the living world.
From the time the Americans spot us until the shooting stops, it's all over in less than half an hour.
In my memory, and in my dream, it doesn't really hurt very much. The whole thing happens so suddenly, and so fast, that it's all just... surreal. Like I'm watching it happen to someone else. The principal sensation I always feel is not the pain of torn metal and fire, but the cold. People think the waters are warm in the tropics, but that's only near the surface. Once the waves close over me, there's only a steadily growing cold that seeps into everything, forces its way into every recess and compartment as the pressure mounts, blots out every other physical sensation.
In a way, I'm glad I was sunk at night. It meant it was already dark; I didn't have to see the light of day seep away to blackness as I fell toward the floor of what was even then becoming known as Ironbottom Sound.
The only other sensation I had, and always relive, is regret. A wish that I had been able to do more. A hope that my sisters will be all right.
They weren't, of course. Of the 23 of them, only two—Ushio and Hibiki—survived the war. Hatsuyuki escaped that night, but American aircraft got her less than a year later. But I didn't know that. Couldn't know that. All I knew, all I know in that moment of the dream, is the cold, and the dark, until at last even those sensations fade away and I'm just... numb.
Normally, the dream ends there, with the end of my first life. I don't dream about finding myself in Valhalla, or about any of the endless battles I fought in the centuries I was here as a ship. I was sunk many, many times in those days, but since I returned to the docks every morning regardless, none of those memories are particularly traumatic. That kind of thing was just part of the routine.
But like every kanmusu, as far as I know, I do relive my first end. I have, off and on, for all of the 18 years since I woke up in this human-like form I have now; starting, in fact, on that very first morning. Ordinarily, it comes every month or two, irregular, but inevitable.
The fleet counselors tell me it's a common thing for Einherjar of all species. There's even a word for it, borrowed from the old dragon tongue: Viirhahnu, the Dying-Dream. I won't say you ever get used to it, exactly, but... you come to live with it eventually. I used to wake up screaming, possessed by an overpowering need to get out of bed, to hit something, just to prove to myself that I can break the silence, that I can move, that I can feel, even if what I feel is only pain.
I don't do that any more. I'm sure Yūdachi-chan and Mutsuki-chan are glad about that. They've never held it against me, but I know I gave them some pretty rough times in the early days. Things have been much quieter in our part of the destroyers' dorm since I started taking my morning run and training with Iowa-san.
I've had my Viirhahnu every night for the last week running. And every time, the end gets... stranger.
Here's what it was like today, the longest and strangest version yet.
It starts like it always does, with the operation, the surprise, the shelling. But it doesn't end when I sink. Instead, I stay there, on the seabed—blind, silent, numb, paralyzed—for I don't know how long. They tell me dreams happen in real time, but it feels like years—decades—centuries, even. Centuries of nothing.
And then it gets worse.
Then come the hooks. Out of nowhere, clawing at me, snagging on my already torn and mangled body. The shellfire didn't hurt so much, but the hooks do, as they rip into me and haul me out of the mud. My back was broken when I hit the bottom, and as the hooks pull me free, the slightest movement is agony—and there's nothing slight about any of the movement I'm doing now.
Even the daylight is painful as the hooks drag me to the surface. The light I wanted nothing more than to see again. It's as blinding as the dark, but it hurts so much more. This isn't right. I wanted to come back, but not like this, not a broken, rusted wreck, torn from the mud by grapples that even now are slowly widening the new holes they made in whatever's left of me.
Then... I don't know where I am next. It's like a drydock, but not any drydock I've ever seen. There are no shipwrights, no repair fairies, nothing any sane shipgirl would recognize—just weird machines and robot arms and Njörd only knows what the rest of those things are. The light here is even brighter, and artificial, and it hurts even more than the sun. Some of the robot arms pry away the hooks and for a second I'm foolish enough to think that relief is at hand...
... until the other arms start... doing things. Straightening plates. Grinding down jagged edges. Installing plugs and patches and who knows what else. Others rip out what's left of my engines and put... something... where they used to be. Nothing is gentle. Nothing about it feels like it cares in any way, like its designers knew it would be working on a living, feeling being. It's just machinery, doing stuff it's been programmed to do, in the most efficient way possible.
It's so much worse than being sunk ever was.
And then... I'm on a table. I'm me, the human(ish, as Yūdachi-chan likes to qualify it) me. Arms, legs, head. But I can still feel the other me, the ship, in the back of my mind. All of that pain is still with me... but at the same time, my human body feels... nothing. Almost nothing. I can tell that it's there, that it's lying on a table, but all of its sensations are muted. There's no texture, no detail. Just... what's the word? Proprioception.
And I can't move.
A figure leans over me. I can't see who it is; the light in the ceiling is too bright, she's just a blurry silhouette. I can only tell she's a woman by her voice.
«And here you are at last,» she says, and I realize she's speaking Russian. How do I know that? I don't speak Russian. How can I understand her?
«Hmm,» says the woman thoughtfully, running her fingers down my left arm. I can barely feel it. «Well, you're not my best work,» she says, and her voice is as unfeeling as my body. «But you're a start. And you'll probably do for what they want.»
Then she turns and walks away, out of my field of vision. I can't even move my eyes, much less turn my head, so I can't follow her or see who she's talking to, only hear her say,
«She's all yours, Captain.»
Another voice, a man's, starts talking, but he's just saying nonsense. Random words. As he speaks, I can feel my mind start to shut down. I try to fight it, but it's no use—it's almost like I can feel my neurons going out, one by one, until all that's left of my world is the unbearably bright light above me.
And then that's gone too.
I woke up, of course, and I don't think I've ever been gladder to do so... but those words, that gibberish the male voice was saying, keep circling around and around in my head. Now that I'm awake I can't even remember what they mean, though I'm sure I knew in the dream, like I understood what the woman was saying... but I still can't stop thinking them.
I'm exhausted. Every day since this started, I wake feeling like I've been beaten up. I swear I can still feel the hooks ripping into my hull, even though my body isn't a ship any more. Even Lady Freyja's Dawn doesn't help. I can still get through the day, but every morning is a little harder... and every night I'm afraid to go to sleep, because I know it'll happen again, and it seems like it gets worse each time.
I don't know what to do... and I'm not sure how much more of this I can take.
The next couple of pages after the end of the journal entry were filled with the same thirteen words, over and over again, in a jagged, halting hand...
... in Cyrillic characters.
"Whoa." Iowa looked up from the journal, her eyes wide with shock. "Bucky, this is messed up."
Fubuki mustered a dry chuckle. "You think?"
"Any idea what any of it means?"
The destroyer shook her head. "None at all. Nothing after the part where I sink makes any sense."
Iowa re-read the last few paragraphs again. "Russian. Huh. You're sure it was Russian?"
Fubuki shook her head. "Not completely. I mean, I don't speak Russian. But that was the impression I had in the dream. And the words... they sure look like Russian. " Looking Iowa in the eye, she went on with helpless dismay, "I can write them even though I don't know what the letters mean. How is that even possible?"
Iowa shook her head. "I don't know," she admitted. She seemed lost in thought for a moment, then held up the journal. "Can I show this to someone? She might have an idea."
Fubuki shrugged. "Sure," she said listlessly.
"Great." Iowa straightened up. "Let's meet back here after lunch, OK? Don't lose heart. We'll figure this out yet."
Not until Iowa had left the room did it occur to Fubuki that she hadn't asked to whom the battleship planned to show her journal. Sighing, she decided it probably didn't matter.
Shōkaku found her sister ship in the third place she checked: sitting on the seawall, gazing out across the harbor at the colossal statue of Kongō that stood beside the entrance.
"There you are," she said, sitting down beside her.
"Huh?" said Zuikaku, mildly startled. "Oh, Shōkaku-nee. I didn't hear you coming."
"You were a million miles away," said Shōkaku. "You're missing the party."
Zuikaku glanced at her, then away. "I'm... not really in a party mood."
"After you've waited all this time? How strange," said Shōkaku playfully, but Zuikaku shook her head.
"I got my hopes up for a minute there... but then I realized it was for nothing," she said. "Admiral Ravenhair's carrier is a Fog ship. She's not really Kaga. Even if she's not an enemy..." Zuikaku tossed a pebble into the surf. "She's a stranger."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Shōkaku said, and then, "She recognized Akagi."
Zuikaku turned to her sister, grey-green eyes going wide. "What?"
"The moment we found her, she knew who Akagi was. And at Red Castle, she asked where you were, almost first thing."
"But... how? That's impossible," Zuikaku protested.
Shōkaku smiled and got to her feet. "Come and see for yourself," she suggested, offering a hand to help Zuikaku up.
For lack of any better idea, Fubuki found her way to Commissary 5, the one most commonly frequented by destroyers. The lunch rush was just beginning as she acquired a tray with a curry rice set meal, so it was easy to get a spot at the end of one of the long tables. Once there, though, she couldn't push the intrusive words out of her head. With her journal gone for the moment, she got a notepad out of her bag instead.
Her roommates found her there an indeterminate time later, mechanically picking at her lunch with one hand, scribbling on the pad with the other, and muttering foreign sounds:
"Zhelaniye. Rzhavyy. Semnadtsat'. Rassvet. Pech'. Dyevyat'. Dobrokachestvenny. Vozvrashcheniye na rodino. Odin. Gruzovoy vagon."
"Uh... hey, Fubuki?" said one of them.
Fubuki blinked, then looked up to see Mutsuki and Yūdachi standing on the opposite side of the table with identical trays in their hands and matching looks of concern on their faces. If she hadn't been so tired and out-of-sorts, she'd have laughed.
"Are you all right?" Mutsuki went on, tilting her head. "You didn't seem to be sleeping very well last night..."
"Or the night before, or the night before that, poi," Yūdachi added under her breath. Mutsuki shot her a look, then stepped over the bench and sat down across from Fubuki. Yūdachi shrugged and did likewise, saying, "Anyway, yeah. We would've tried to corner you before the meeting this morning, but you were already gone for your morning run when we woke up, poi." She considered her friend's woebegone, bloodshot condition and added, "Doesn't look like it helped much."
Fubuki groaned and pressed the insides of her wrists to her eyes. "I keep having my Viirhahnu. But that's not the worst part." She told them about the strange new extension to the dream she'd lately been experiencing, finishing up with, "And now I keep hearing his voice. The one the woman called Captain. He keeps repeating these words. I don't understand them, but I feel like they must be important." She lowered her hands and nodded toward her notepad. "I've tried writing them down, but they still don't make sense."
Mutsuki reached and slid the notepad toward herself, turning it around so she and Yūdachi, leaning in over her shoulder, could read it... and found that they still couldn't.
"Um... Fubuki? This is Russian," Mutsuki said.
"I knooow," Fubuki moaned, despondent. She flopped forward, head and arms on the table. "But what does it mean?!"
Mutsuki and Yūdachi looked at each other; then the latter stood up and rose to her tiptoes, sweeping her gaze over the lunch crowd.
"Well," she said practically, "when in doubt, poi, ask a Russian." With that, she waved a hand over her head and called, "Hey, Tashkent! Over here!"
Over by the end of the pickup line, a figure looked up at the sound of her name, saw Yūdachi waving, and started making her way over, pausing only to grab a bottle of tarhun out of the ice bucket as she passed. Even in a room full of uniformed shipgirls, Soviet destroyer leader Tashkent stood out: having been midway between a destroyer and a light cruiser as a ship, she was taller than most of the other destroyers in her kanmusu form, and sported a papakha studded with three gold stars on her head and a dashing blue shoulder stole.
"Good afternoon, Comrades!" she declared cheerfully as she came within earshot. "How is the day?" Then, taking in Fubuki's air of frazzled exhaustion and her roommates' twin looks of concern, she became serious and nodded. "Ah. It's that sort of day."
"Mm," Mutsuki agreed.
Tashkent put her tray down and seated herself next to Fubuki. "What seems to be the problem?" she wondered.
"Fubuki here seems to be haunted by a Russian ghost, poi," Yūdachi explained as she resumed her own seat.
"Eh?" said Tashkent, raising an eyebrow.
Mutsuki rolled her eyes. "What she means is that Fubuki-chan's having dreams where somebody's speaking in Russian, and she's written down the words but they don't make sense." She shrugged. "None of us ever served with a Russian-speaking fleet, so..." She handed across Fubuki's notepad.
"Aha," said Tashkent with a smile. "So you need a translator. Of course! I would be happy to help..."
The Soviet destroyer's voice trailed off as her eyes began tracking across the pad. While the other three watched, they saw her expression change from cheerfulness to concern as she began to translate the words to Anglo-Standard:
"Longing. Rusted. Seventeen." The tone in her voice and the look on her face progressively slid from concern toward horror as she continued, "Daybreak. Furnace. Nine. Benign. Homecoming. One." Tashkent hesitated for a moment before intoning the last phrase in a low murmur that carried a weight of dread out of all proportion to its apparent mundanity: "Freight car."
Yūdachi tilted her head in puzzlement, and was about to say something like "That's it, poi?!" before she noticed Fubuki's reaction. Her face had gone completely blank, her unblinking eyes staring like the glass eyes of a doll.
"Fubuki?" she asked. Then, reaching across the table, she waved a hand in front of her friend's face, snapped her fingers a couple of times, and when that got no response, lightly smacked her cheek with an open palm. "Fubuki! Snap out of it, poi!"
"Huh!" said Fubuki, jumping slightly in her seat. Blinking rapidly, she shook her head.
"What happened?" Mutsuki asked. "You sort of... went away for a second."
"I don't... it felt like it does in my dream. Not exactly like it, not as strong, but..." She pulled her hands down her face, shivering. "Enough that I don't want to hear anybody say that again."
"This is bad," said Tashkent gravely. "Very bad, my friends."
"What? Do you know what it means, Tashkent-san?"
"I think so. If I were the type, I would pray that I am wrong, but..." She trailed off again, then suddenly and decisively stood up, her uneaten lunch forgotten. "We must go and see Comrade Gangut. Now."
White Rose repair ship Akashi paused in front of one of the long, low red-brick buildings at the edge of the harbor, compared the number on the brass plate by the door to the one scribbled on the note in her hand, and noted the absence of anything like a doorbell or guard post. Shrugging to herself, she pushed the door open and entered.
Inside, she found herself in a busy, chaotic workshop, a markedly different environment from the quiet, efficient, largely automated Fog repair docks she was used to. This place was grubby and noisy, with numerous chains and hoists hanging from the steel beams that criscrossed the space under the high, peaked roof, mysterious pairs of rails running here and there embedded in the concrete floor, and what looked like pieces of dismantled miniature warships scattered everywhere, on stands and workbenches. Long trestle tables, steel-legged with scarred, grime-stained wooden tops, held jumbled assortments of oily parts. Showers of sparks from grinding and welding operations flickered here and there.
There were a few workers in evidence, here and there alongside various projects in progress. The nearest one, standing with her back to the door and her arms folded as she surveyed the scene, was a slim woman with the top of an orange work coverall tied around her waist and a nominally-white tank top above, her green hair pulled back in a ponytail underneath a battered white hardhat.
"Uh... excuse me?" said Akashi. When the remark drew no response, she tried again, this time almost shouting to be heard over the cacophony of the workshop.
This time the green-haired woman heard her. Turning around, she proved to be a youthful specimen with wide brown eyes, which went slightly wider still with curiosity at the sight of someone she'd never seen before.
"Uh, hi, I'm Akashi—repair ship with Admiral Ravenhair's White Rose Fleet. I'm supposed to meet someone called Vestal here?"
"Oh hey, yeah, we were told you'd be coming by," said the green-haired girl, grinning. "Light cruiser Yūbari. Nice to meet you!" She offered a hand to be shaken, then belatedly noticed how dirty it was and converted the gesture to a fist bump instead.
With that complete, she retrieved a bright green hardhat and a pair of eye protectors from a rack near the door, handed them to Akashi, and went on, "C'mon, I'll show you to the inner sanctum."
Akashi put on the safety gear, as superfluous as it was in her case, and followed Yūbari as she led the way to the first of a row of old-fashioned wooden doors set into one side wall of the workshop. The door had a frosted glass panel taking up most of the upper half, on which someone had painted the word 𝕊𝕦𝕡𝕖𝕣𝕚𝕟𝕥𝕖𝕟𝕕𝕖𝕟𝕥 in an equally old-fashioned font. Next to it, an enameled metal sign screwed to the wall read respirator required beyond this point.
Yūbari knocked, then swung the door open without waiting for a reply and went inside, gesturing for Akashi to follow. The room beyond the door was an office, high-ceilinged but narrow and almost unbelievably messy, with documents strewn across the top of a grey-painted metal desk and bulging out of the unclosably overstuffed drawers of a row of file cabinets. The place was redolent with the mingled smells of coal smoke, heavy fuel oil, and lubricating grease. Above the desk, a ceiling fan on a long drive shaft hung from the ceiling, turning lazily and drawing an interesting vortex pattern in the cloud of smoke that filled the upper third of the office's volume.
Standing behind the desk was the source of the smoke. She was a woman, dressed similarly to Yūbari but for the dark grey color of her coverall, and the fact that she was wearing it all the way up, sleeves rolled, and had a worn leather welder's apron over it. Instead of a hardhat, she had a crumpled khaki U.S. Navy officer's cap, circa World War II, crammed down on her head. Akashi wondered whether the ponytail draped forward over her shoulder was really iron-grey, or just as dirty as her clothes. She did look a few years older than Yūbari, with crows' feet at the corners of her eyes, but her arms were powerfully muscled and she gave off a distinct air of vitality.
At the moment they entered the office, this woman was engaged in two activities simultaneously:
1) Smoking like a steel mill; and
2) Shouting at someone down the line of an antique black desk phone, the receiver of which she held to her head with one hand while the other gesticulated with her pipe.
"—don't give a sweet goddamn what your 'standard operating procedure' is, Mac," she growled in a voice that went with the pipe. "When I get a turret in my shop with a main rotator bearing sounds like it's been lubricated with sand, I replace the sonofabitch. That's my standard operating procedure, and I expect to have the supplies I need to carry it out on hand at all fucking times. Capeesh? Now get on it." With that, and without giving the person at the other end any time to reply, she banged the phone down hard enough to make the bell ring, then stood glaring at it until the sound faded.
"Saint Isambard help me," she grumbled, "the beancounters in this place are worse than when I was alive." Then, seeming to notice for the first time that she had company, she looked up and said, "Who's this, then?"
"Our guest from the living world," said Yūbari, evidently unfazed by her colleague's dudgeon. "United States Navy repair ship Vestal, this is Fleet of Fog repair ship Akashi."
"Aha," said Vestal, her forbidding aspect brightening somewhat. "I was wondering if you were gonna come by." She knocked the contents of her pipe into an overflowing ash tray on her desk, then stuck the pipe into the top pocket of her coverall as she came around the desk. "Never thought I'd be sayin' this to a Fog ship, but welcome to the Armory."
"Thanks for having me," Akashi replied, uncertain what else to say.
"Did Yubes give you the tour?"
"No, I brought her straight here," Yūbari said.
"Well, let's go, then," said Vestal, and without further ado, she led the way out of her office and back out onto the workshop floor.
"Just for the record," Akashi said, "I'm not really a Fog ship any more. I mean, I am physically, but none of us in Admiral Ravenhair's fleet is part of the Fog command structure any longer." She grinned slightly. "As a matter of fact, we fought a pretty major battle to keep it that way."
"Yeah, I heard about that," Vestal said, nodding. "Was at your admiral's briefing this morning. Sounded like a solid day's work. Anyway, no offense meant." Seemingly apropos of nothing, she went on, "Did you have anything like supply officers in the Fog, back in the day?"
"Uh... no, not really. We don't really have 'supplies' in the sense that you do. All of our repairs and construction projects use the same universal nanomaterial."
"Really? Huh. That's convenient. Sounds kind of dull, though. See, for us, this is where the magic happens." With a proprietorial sort of pride, Vestal gestured to the workshop floor spread out before them, with all the various projects underway. "We got nearly a thousand ships in the 14th Navy Group, and all the repair and refit for their rigging happens right here. Their bodies can heal up in the recovery baths, and they get restored every morning by Lady Freyja's Gift anyway, but the machinery... we gotta fix that the old-fashioned way."
As she spoke, a tiny flying figure flitted up to her, pausing to hover before her, salute, and present a minuscule clipboard for her inspection. Akashi, fascinated, leaned in for a closer look. The creature was like a miniature human with slightly cherubic proportions, dressed in a green work coverall and sporting a tiny yellow hardhat. Vestal accepted the clipboard, screwed a jeweler's loupe into her right eye to examine it, then put the loupe away and handed the clipboard back with a nod.
"Good job," she said to the tiny worker. "Take five, then get started on that boiler overhaul for Repulse."
The tiny worker saluted again, replied, "Aye aye, ma'am!" in a high, flutelike voice, and then darted off.
Vestal sense Akashi's surprised gaze and turned toward her with a little grin. "Well, the mostly old-fashioned way," she said.
"What was that?" Akashi wondered. "I've never seen anything like it."
"We call them fairies, although they're not actually related to the fae folk," Yūbari explained. "They're helper spirits. We've got a lot of them in Valhalla, each with her own specialty. That one was a steamfitter first class."
"Huh, wow. Who are the bigger ones?" Akashi asked, nodding toward the work floor.
"Our colleagues—other repair ships," said Yūbari. She pointed a few out, naming them as she did. "That's USS Amphion; over there are HMS Vindictive and HMS Artifex; oh! And back there in the corner is another Japanese repair ship, Asahi. She's a converted battleship, that's where she got that cool coat."
"Huh!" said Akashi. "I remember her."
Vestal and Yūbari glanced at each other in surprise, then turned to Akashi. "You do?" asked Vestal.
Akashi nodded. "Sure. She was recommissioned in '38, the same year I was launched."
"Hang on, hang on," said Vestal, putting up a hand. "You weren't launched in 1938. The ship the Fog patterned you on was. You were—" She broke off as a movement caught her eye. A few bays away, an overhead crane was swinging what looked like a dismounted battleship turret from one workstation to another. Vestal evidently didn't like the looks of the operation; drawing breath, she bellowed in a voice that cut through the noise of the shop and carried clear over there,
"Dammit, Ajax! Tell 'em to slow down!"
The coveralled kanmusu nearest the action mimed an exasperated wave, then shouted back, her voice barely reaching them, "I'm doin' it, calm down, willya."
"That kid's gonna drive me back to drinkin'," Vestal grumbled. "Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. You were launched, or hatched, or wherever Fog ships come from, in the twenty-thirties sometime. So how can you have memories of Asahi?"
"I don't know," Akashi replied seriously. "That's one of the reasons I'm here. Admiral Ravenhair wants me to consult with you about how we're going to get his Return idea to work—and I was hoping that between us, we might figure out what's going on with us from the Midway Detachment... because since we woke up, things have been getting very strange for us."
"Hm." Vestal regarded her thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "Let's go someplace quieter. I can barely hear myself think in this place."
Zuikaku hesitated a moment before entering Red Castle, considering the scene she saw through the glass door. No one inside the restaurant had noticed her yet, giving her the chance to observe their interactions. Despite Shōkaku's report, she was gripped with uncertainty at the sight of Kaga. She didn't look like herself. The senior carrier had never appeared as an embodied kanmusu, so by rights Zuikaku shouldn't have any idea of what she ought to look like in the first place, but that was still the instantaneous impression she got.
It wasn't Kaga's face or figure that seemed out of place, Zuikaku realized after a moment's reflection; it was her demeanor. Sitting wedged between Akagi and Hiryū, she looked... awkward. Anxious. Zuikaku couldn't hear them, but Hiryū was making some grinning comment or another, and Kaga's reply looked hesitant—even diffident.
That was totally wrong. Awkward, anxious, diffident—Kaga wasn't any of those things. Kaga was cool, confident, always on top of the situation. She was the moral center of 1CarDiv, the sober, level-headed balance to Akagi's flighty cheerfulness—the fleet carrier with a battleship's heart. With her own heart sinking, Zuikaku decided that her sister must be wrong. Whoever that was in there, she wasn't the real Kaga.
You can't stand out here forever, Zuikaku, she told herself sternly.
Whether Shōkaku's assessment was right or wrong didn't matter in the overall picture. That Fog carrier, whosever name she happened to have appropriated, was a guest of the 14th, brought among them by one of the Æsir, and however uncomfortable it might be, Zuikaku was honor-bound to go and welcome her to New Yokosuka with her colleagues. Steeling herself, she pulled the door open and stepped inside.
The conversation stopped at once as the bell over the door jingled. The other carriers all paused and looked up, smiles of recognition and welcome coming to their faces—all except the false Kaga's. Hers instead took on a look of slightly puzzled concentration, her head tilting slightly, as she examined the new arrival.
Then, with a very faint hint of a smirk, she said, "Took you long enough, 5CarDiv. Did you get lost?"
For a moment, while all the others stared at them, the two carriers looked at each other in surprise.
Where did that come from? Kaga wondered inwardly.
Zuikaku teetered between astonishment and annoyance for a moment, then blurted, "Damn it, Kaga! Why are you always like this?"
"I don't know," Kaga replied, sounding as mystified as she was. "It just seemed like the thing I should say. Besides," she added, shrugging as her composure reasserted itself, "5CarDiv is 5CarDiv, no?"
Everyone started talking at once.
For reasons as mysterious as the phenomenon itself, the first wave of kanmusu to appear in the confused first months following the Ragnarök all embodied ships from various combatant nations of Earth's Second World War (SY 1939–1945). Moreover, virtually all of them were from the Imperial Japanese Navy. Only a handful of other nations were represented in that first manifestation, and the Asgardian authorities didn't really know what to do with them.
The Japanese ships sorted themselves and their living arrangements out, establishing residences in the old Ninth Fleet buildings allocated for the newcomers' use more or less in accordance with their fleet structure as it had been in life, but there weren't enough of the others from any given nation to fall back into such patterns so easily. Instead, they decided to go their own way, founding what they wryly termed the "United Nations Fleet Headquarters".
Built at the edge of the nascent 14th Group campus, the UN Dorm (as it was almost immediately dubbed for short) was an ad-hoc collection of structures gathered around one of New Yokosuka’s smaller lighthouses. Although their respective navies had swelled in number since then, with more modern, less improvised dormitories built to house them, the initial residents of the UN Dorm had solidified into a community by that point, and most of the first-wavers declined to move out—regardless of how their personalities would sometimes clash.
Fubuki had visited a few times, usually as Iowa's guest, but the jumble of interconnected buildings clustered around the old lighthouse was a bit of a maze on the inside, so she was grateful for the escort as Tashkent led her and her friends to the room she shared with the UN Fleet's only other Russian member, the battleship Gangut. As it turned out, this was right next door to Iowa's quarters, one door beyond the battleship's own, at the end of the hall.
The room beyond that door was a pleasantly cluttered bed-sit, with a couple of beds along one wall, a couch in the middle, and a couple of armchairs and bookcases. The walls were covered in Soviet patriotic posters and a couple of naval banners over slightly kitschy red-and-white wallpaper. The couch faced an old-fashioned black-and-white television set, currently switched off, and Iowa was sitting at one end of it, deep in consultation with another figure who sat frowning, legs crossed at the knee, gazing at Fubuki's journal.
Fubuki knew little of Gangut, though they had met a few times at various fleet functions. She was the eldest of the "first-wave" kanmusu, having been launched in 1911—a year before even Kongō—but the only real signs of her age in her new incarnation were her grey hair and the scar on her left cheek. Perhaps because she had served in the Russian Imperial Navy before the Soviet revolution, she was less inclined to lapse into Marxist-Leninist dialectical materialism than some of her latter-reincarnated countrywomen, but she did have the common Soviet habit of addressing her fleetmates as "Comrade".
She did so now, rising from her seat and remarking, "Ah, here you are, Comrade Fubuki. Iowa was just telling me about your curious predicament. If you had not come to me, I would soon have been seeking you out. Please—sit, be comfortable," she went on, gesturing to the nearer of the beds. "We haven't enough furniture to do things more formally," she added with a little smile, seating herself on the edge of the other bed.
"I'll be right back," said Iowa, and she nipped out the door and headed off down the hall.
Not knowing what else to do, Fubuki climbed up on the offered bed and sat, knees tucked under her, facing the Russian battleship. Yūdachi and Mutsuki flanked her, offering their supportive presence if nothing else, while Tashkent stationed herself standing by the foot of the bed.
"So," said Gangut, gesturing with Fubuki's journal. "Iowa tells me you have had this dream for several nights running."
Fubuki nodded. "Last night was the eighth—although it was the first time it went all the way to the end. At least I hope that was the end," she added disconsolately. "I can't imagine where it could possibly go from there."
Before Gangut could reply, Iowa returned with reinforcements in the form of her dog, a scruffy, lovable mutt of indeterminate origin called Victory, who was the UN Dorm's unofficial mascot. Without being instructed, he hopped up on the bed and into Fubuki's lap, adding his support (and providing it to the other destroyers as well). The sight brought a small smile to Gangut's lips, but it disappeared again as she replied solemnly,
"I hope you will not have occasion to find out—but I would not count on it."
"Why? Do you know something about... whatever is happening in that last part?"
Gangut shook her head. "Not directly. The part with your wreck and the laboratory... that's as much a mystery to me as it is to you." She lay the journal open on her knees, revealing the pages with the scrawled Russian words, and tapped them with her fingertips. "These words, though... these words I recognize. Let me tell you a story."
The Russian battleship paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts, and then said,
"Long ago, a few years after the Great Patriotic War, I knew a man who spoke these words. He spoke them to a younger man with empty eyes and colorless skin, more dead than alive. The younger man never spoke, barely ever moved. Just waited. Like a machine that has no work to do.
"I was tasked to take these two men to Odessa. Supposedly they were diplomats. On the way, a member of my crew, a cook who was really an operative of the GRU—Soviet military intelligence, we always had a few of them on board in those days—discovered something about them." She shook her head. "I do not know what it was. The cook confronted the older man, threatening to report him and his companion to the zampolit. The older man spoke these words. The young man moved. The cook died."
The destroyers stared at her in stunned silence. Gangut held Fubuki's eyes with hers for a moment, then went on matter-of-factly, "It was as quick and as simple as that. The young one threw the body overboard, and he and his master resumed their voyage as if nothing had happened. Loganov's disappearance was chalked up to misfortune—another drunken matros finding his way overboard in the night.
"They left us in Odessa; I never saw them again, nor do I know what they were there to do. I was only a ship in those days, after all. What happened ashore was no business of mine."
Her story concluded, Gangut closed the journal and said, "Tashkent was right to bring you to me, Fubuchka. This cannot be coincidental. If you are dreaming of these words, something terrible is afoot. You must take action."
"But... but what action? I don't even know what's happening, how can I do anything about it?" Fubuki asked.
"I don't know," Gangut admitted. "But I know where you must start. Whatever the cause of this phenomenon, it's reasonable to assume that its roots lie back in the mortal world. To find them, you'll have to go there." She handed Fubuki's journal back to its owner and went on, "You had best go and see Admiral Ravenhair."
As it happened, there were quite a few people around New Yokosuka who were coming to that same conclusion at around that time. At that moment, the object of all their thoughts was returning to his newly established office from the Admiralty. Corwin Ravenhair was well-pleased with the outcome of his meeting with Nagato, Admiral Tōgō, and the two Admirals Richardson, all of whom had expressed support for his project and suggested a few prospective participants—not, as it turned out, that any of them needed to worry over-much about that aspect of things.
As Corwin approached the front door of the old Ninth Fleet administration building, the kanmusu standing watch outside—a Western-looking young woman in a white uniform emblazoned with a bright orange armband—came to attention and saluted. Taken slightly aback, he hesitated a moment before returning the salute.
"Welcome back, Admiral," she said briskly. "I feel I should warn you, your office is facing something of a siege at present. In your position, I would consider an alternate approach vector." Then, her aspect softening somewhat, she smiled slightly and added, "Otherwise you may end up trying to cover the distance between the elevator and your office with a half-dozen destroyers clinging to each leg."
Corwin chuckled. "Thanks for the warning, uh... ?"
She straightened up to full eyes-front attention again. "United States Coast Guard Cutter Acushnet, WMEC-167, at your service, sir."
"Um... as you were," said Corwin.
"Sir," said Acushnet, saluting again as he passed her and entered the building.
Once inside, he considered his options. She'd suggested taking an alternate route, but as far as he knew, there were no real alternate routes to his office. It had three doors, one entering from the corridor, the others connecting to the adjacent conference and records rooms, but both of those rooms were accessed from the same hallway. His only other options, as far as he could figure, would be to teleport, which seemed ostentatious, or to climb (or levitate) up the back of the building and enter through the window, which seemed silly.
After a moment's cogitation, he summoned the elevator, pressed the button for the fourth floor, and then hustled to the stairs. Climbing as fast as he could, he arrived on the fourth-floor landing and peered through the narrow window in the fire door. Sure enough, the hallway was packed with people, all of them sporting various uniforms and all evidently waiting to see him.
A moment later, the elevator bell dinged and the doors opened. While everyone in the hallway turned to look, Corwin quietly opened the stairway door and darted across to the records room, slipping inside and easing the door shut behind him. He waited for a moment, but heard no hue and cry; only a quiet chorus of puzzlement as the elevator closed again with nobody having come out.
Feeling simultaneously a little bit silly and slightly pleased with his cleverness, Corwin opened the connecting door and stepped into his office. Ōyodo, his fleet command ship, and Murakumo, the kanmusu destroyer assigned by 14th Navy Group fleet coordinator Nagato to serve as his secretary in Valhalla, both turned from their desks to blink at him in faint surprise as he emerged.
Ōyodo recovered quickly, as she always did on the rare occasions when anything fazed her, and said, "Welcome back, Admiral. I trust your meeting went well?"
"Very well indeed," Corwin confirmed, seating himself behind his new desk. "What's been going on here? We seem to have a bit of a crowd outside," he added with a slight smile.
"You should have seen it before lunch," Murakumo said. Then, placing a stack of papers on his desk, she went on, "Here—your homework for today."
"What's this?" Corwin wondered, picking it up.
"These are the names of all the volunteers who've visited so far," Murakumo explained. "We were able to get about three-quarters of them to leave by promising you would call them back in at an appropriate time. The rest are still outside."
Corwin lifted the top sheet, saw that the one beneath it was completely full as well, and raised an eyebrow. "Uh... how many?"
"One hundred forty-three so far, sir," reported Ōyodo.
"Huh." Corwin sat back in his seat, regarding the papers, then looked up and said wryly, "And here I was, worried we wouldn't have any takers."
"Nagato did try to warn you," Murakumo pointed out, then continued, "I've asked the Records Office to pull the summary files for everyone on the list; they'll be here in about an hour, by which time I should have the records room back in order and ready to receive them."
"In the meantime," said Ōyodo, "we've taken the liberty of sorting the ones who are still waiting in descending order of how likely Murakumo thinks they are to damage the building if kept waiting."
"Which means your first appointment of the afternoon is Musashi-san. Good luck," said Murakumo, and without missing a beat, she turned and went out through the door he'd just come in by, into the records room.
Corwin watched her go, then turned back to Ōyodo and quipped, "Maybe I should ask Nagato for a less efficient secretary."
Ōyodo favored that remark with a skeptical look, then let it pass and placed a white paper bag and cardboard beverage cup, both marked with the Red Castle logo, on his desk. "I also took the liberty of having some lunch brought over for you, since you didn't get to it before you had to leave for the Admiralty. Musashi is expecting to see you at 1400 hours."
Corwin glanced at the wall clock and saw that it was 1341. "Fair enough," he said. "Thanks."
"You're welcome, sir," she said, and returned to her seat.
Corwin delved in the bag, found a couple of cheeseburgers and a smaller bag of fries, and tore the outer bag into an impromptu placemat on his desk blotter, then sat back to enjoy his lunch. Through the open window behind him, he could hear faint sounds of surf lapping against the seawall and the distant noises of a working port, which made for a pleasant background.
A short while later, he heard a fluttering noise much closer to hand. Half-turning in his chair, he saw that a large crow had just alighted on the windowsill. It didn't spook and fly off when he turned to look, instead tilting its head in a thoughtful sort of way and peering at him with very dark eyes that had a faint reddish tint in the sunshine.
"Hello," said Corwin.
"Caw," said the crow.
"Did you say something, Admiral?" asked Ōyodo, looking up from her work; then she saw that he hadn't been talking to her and added, "Ah."
"Just chatting with a local," said Corwin with a smile. Fishing one of his fries out of the packet, he offered it to the bird, which took it neatly and precisely. "You know, corvids are very clever birds," he went on conversationally. "They remember people they meet and never forget a favor or a slight."
"I had no idea you were an ornithologist, sir," said Ōyodo with a hint of mischief.
"I'm not, particularly, but you know, when you grow up with a name like Corwin Ravenhair, you do some reading..."
Ōyodo chuckled and returned to her work. Corwin turned back to his desk and resumed looking through the list of names while he ate his lunch. The next time Ōyodo looked his way, she saw that the crow had hopped from the windowsill onto his desk and now stood at his elbow, looking comically like it was also perusing the list. Every now and then, Corwin absently gave it another French fry; it always took them eagerly, but never showed any inclination to steal any food not offered...
... Wait. Was it wearing a hat?
Ōyodo looked closer and became convinced that it was: a tiny red hat, box-shaped and hexagonal, which her cultural-referential database returned an 87% probability was an archaic Japanese type called a tokin. Corwin didn't seem to have noticed, or possibly he didn't care. Ōyodo shrugged inwardly and went back to her documents. For all she knew, all Asgardian birds wore hats.
"By the way," Corwin asked, "where's the rest of the gang?"
"There's been no sign of Kaga since the other carriers took her away," Ōyodo replied. "Akashi is visiting the 14th Fleet Armory, as requested. While you were out, Iona was invited to observe a practice session with some of the local submarines. She should be back around 1700 hours."
"Huh. Well, that's hospitable of them." Corwin finished his lunch, policed the litter and lobbed it into the trash, then straightened up his hat and said, "I guess it's about that time. Would you show Musashi in, please?"
"Right away, Admiral," Ōyodo replied, and she suited word to deed. As he got to his feet, Corwin caught a glimpse of a number of curious faces crowding around the door while the command ship opened it to admit his first visitor, then closed it behind her.
He'd seen Musashi at the morning briefing, of course, but she'd been at the back of a very large room, so he'd only gotten a vague sense of what she looked like. Even at that range, he could tell she was distinctive, the kind of woman who made an impression wherever she went, and up close, that notion was instantly confirmed. Like Yamato of his own fleet, whose pattern was Musashi's sister ship, she was a very tall and powerfully built woman, easily standing seven feet tall in her rudder-heeled boots. If anything, she was even bigger than Yamato, with broader shoulders and a generally more rugged build.
Where Yamato had fair skin and very long, straight brown hair, Musashi was deeply tanned and her white hair was shaggy, bordering on unkempt. Despite her hairstyle and the general impression she gave of being a bit of a brawler, though, she had a certain innate dignity of bearing that also reminded Corwin of Yamato—that sense that here was a ship created to be as much a symbol of a nation's pride as a weapon of war. Her narrow, rectangular-framed spectacles enhanced that facet of her character, giving her a faintly studious air.
She'd changed her clothes since the meeting, too, or at least put more of them on; the black-and-grey uniform she wore now was perfectly squared away and correct, the buttons of its double-breasted jacket gleaming. Only the silver-faced black jinbaori she had on over it had an element of informality about it, since she was wearing it draped over her shoulders cape-fashion without her arms through the holes, like a yakuza boss's overcoat in an old movie. Corwin decided that look suited her style.
Stopping precisely before his desk, Musashi stood to attention and saluted. "Yamato-class battleship, second ship, Musashi. Thank you for agreeing to see me first."
Corwin returned the salute and gestured to the armchair facing his desk. "Welcome," he said. "Please, have a seat. There's no need to be formal." After they were both seated, it belatedly occurred to him that he didn't really know how to open this conversation without saying something that was a fairly dumb question under the circumstances, but since not observing conversational conventions would have seemed even weirder, he went on a little awkwardly, "So, uh... what's on your mind?"
Musashi didn't blink; she received the question with the gravity she evidently felt the situation deserved and, inclining her upper body in a seated bow, said, "First, I want to apologize for my outburst at this morning's meeting. I forgot myself in my shock."
"No apology necessary," Corwin replied, deciding not to raise the point that she'd actually interrupted the meeting twice. "I have to confess I wasn't expecting my ships' identities to surprise anyone. I thought some Einheri ship spirits would probably have strong feelings about members of the Fleet of Fog, but I never anticipated that kind of reaction."
Musashi nodded. "I understand. I must admit I don't fully comprehend my own reaction. Logically, your Fog Yamato is no more closely related to me than a scale model in a museum, but..." She shook her head. "The moment I saw the hologram you projected, I knew I was looking at my long-lost sister. I don't know how that can be, but I have no doubt of it." She clenched a fist before her chest, staring him in the eye with an almost palpable intensity in her own. "I feel it."
Corwin gazed thoughtfully back at her for a moment, then nodded. "I believe you," he said. "I'm starting to get a sense that there is something very odd going on with my ships, particularly the ones I found at the Midway station. You're not the first to identify one of them with the historical ships they're patterned on; in fact, before I left Midgard for this trip, one of them told me something similar about herself and her own sister ship. That's another reason I decided to come here—to investigate that phenomenon further."
"What have you found?" Musashi wondered.
"Nothing yet," said Corwin. "We haven't been here long, we're just starting to gather the information we need. Also, I'm hoping that once we get the Union Core transference process worked out and start putting it into practice, some fresh insights will emerge."
"I see. Well, that makes my second reason for coming here today all the more urgent, then." Keeping her eyes on his, Musashi went on, "I wish to offer my services to your fleet, Admiral. If you know your naval history, then my strength and determination should speak for themselves. It took half the United States Navy to bring me down the first time." Warming to her topic, she unconsciously rose to her feet, leaning over his desk with her hands planted on either side of the blotter, and went on, "With my centuries of combat experience acquired here and the power of a Fog battleship, this Musashi will be your greatest weapon. Nothing will withstand me." Raising a clenched fist before her, she concluded in a ringing voice, "At my sister's side, I will crush your enemies and drive them before you!"
They held that tableau for a moment, neither moving nor speaking, while Ōyodo looked on with one raised eyebrow and faint sounds of applause filtered in from out in the hall.
"I think—I hope—you may be overestimating the amount of crushing and driving that will be needed, but I appreciate the sentiment," said Corwin sincerely.
Musashi blinked, reddened slightly, and sat down. "My apologies," she said. "I... I do get a bit carried away sometimes."
"It's good to be enthusiastic," Corwin said mildly. "I just hope you won't be disappointed by what you find if you do come back with us."
Musashi shook her head. "I won't be," she said positively. "Whatever the outcome. If I'm right, and your Yamato is somehow the same one I've been searching for all this time, then the search is over. If I'm wrong, then I'll know she's still out there somewhere. Either way, we will be reunited—whether on the seas or in Valhalla." She looked him in the eye once more. "It is inevitable."
Corwin held her gaze for a moment, then nodded. "Very well, then." He rose, smiling, and extended a hand across his desk. "Welcome to the White Rose Fleet."
Musashi blinked in surprise—perhaps, he considered, she thought her outburst had put him off?—then got up and gave it a firm but not competitive shake.
"You won't regret this, Admiral," she said.
"I'm sure I won't," he said. They regarded each other for a moment, hands still clasped, and for the first time, Musashi noticed the black bird standing like a pirate's parrot on his shoulder. At the sight, she cracked her first smile of their meeting and said,
"Nominative determinism, sir?"
"Maybe," Corwin replied, then added, "Or she might just be hoping to score some more French fries."
Musashi chuckled, then straightened up and gave him a formal bow. "Thank you for your consideration, Admiral. I won't take up any more of your time. Please let me know when I'm needed."
"Will do," Corwin assured her, and Ōyodo showed her out. "Right then," he said when Musashi had gone. "Who's next?"
Before Ōyodo could answer, the door—which was swinging to after Musashi but had not quite closed—suddenly opened again, banging against the stop as a white-brown-and-red-clad figure thrust it aside and barged full-steam into the room.
"Hey! Admiral!" cried the new arrival in an English voice touched with a Cumbrian accent. "We have to talk about this Fog bint you say your fleet fought, desu."
"... That would be the battleship Kongō, sir," said Ōyodo, deadpan.
Not long after the establishment of the UN Dorm, as more and more kanmusu from various historical navies and nations appeared, the custom arose of housing them primarily by hull classification rather than nationality. Ships of a common flag were welcome to group together within their assigned housing, and of course there were always mavericks who chose to go their own ways; but for the most part, the residence facilities built after UN Fleet Headquarters were identified with particular ship types.
Each of these had its own particular quirks. The destroyers' dorm, for instance, was the largest and most sprawling, for the simple reason that destroyers were the most numerous ships in almost every twentieth- or twenty-first-century navy worth noting. The battleships' quarters had the sturdiest construction and the most extensive dining facilities, the latter rivaled only by those serving the aircraft carriers.
As for the submarines...
"This is the place!" Iona's escort declared.
The building behind her was a three-story structure with a vaguely Mediterranean feel that was a bit at odds with the general vibe of New Yokosuka, and of Valhalla in general—white stucco with a terra-cotta tile roof, the windows sporting wrought-iron railings at the bottom. As she was led under the arch of the entry gate, Iona saw that it was built on a plan like a hollow square, with the middle third or so of one side omitted to make way for the entrance. The central courtyard was dominated by an immense swimming pool surrounded by a broad patio of blue terrazzo, on which were set up ranks of lounge chairs.
Right now, the place seemed to be mostly deserted. Although the building was large enough to house dozens of people, there were only a few in evidence at the pool, either swimming or sitting on the edge. At the sight of the two new arrivals approaching, they all gathered by the diving board at the near end of the pool, the latter group slipping into the water to join the former.
"Scamp! You're back!" one of them, a very tanned specimen with long blonde hair bleached nearly white by the sun, declared. "Is this her?"
"This is her!" USS Scamp confirmed. "Everybody, this is White Rose submarine I-401, formerly of the Fleet of Fog."
"Huh," remarked another, who resembled Scamp both in looks and personal style, but with shorter hair and blue eyes. "I always figured the I-400 class would be bigger in person."
"Rude," said Scamp.
"What? I'm just sayin'."
"We should introduce ourselves!" said the tanned blonde. "I'm Ro-500, but you can call me Ro-chan. I'm a Type IXC U-boat from Germany, but I was transferred to the IJN in 1943. Nice to meet you!" Hugging the person to her left, she went on, "This is Ro-chan's best friend, Decchi!"
"Decchi" sighed, rolling her eyes slightly with an indulgent half-smile. "Type B3 submarine I-58," she said. "I go by Goya, dechi. Not Decchi."
"I don't really think that's gonna clear it up, considering," remarked the violet-haired specimen to Ro-chan's right. "Hiya! Type B1 submarine I-19 here! Call me Iku." She angled a thumb at the sailor-capped, bespectacled blonde next to her. "This here's my sister ship, Hacchan."
Hacchan nodded. "Type B1 submarine I-8. A pleasure." She adjusted her glasses slightly, taking a close look at Iona. "I've always been curious about the Fleet of Fog's submarine capabilities."
"And last but not least," said Scamp with a grin, "my slightly surly cousin..."
"Ah, gimme a break already," grumbled the one who resembled Scamp. "Fleet submarine USS Tang, SS-306. I'm the... twenty-second?... boat of the Balao class. I think. There's a lot of us." She smiled sardonically and added, "And before you ask, I'm named after a fish, not the astronaut drink."
Iona tilted her head curiously. "Astronaut drink?"
"Ha!" said Scamp. "You finally met someone who wasn't going to make that joke, and you went and made it yourself!"
"Eh, it figures."
"Are you coming on torpedo practice with us, Iona-chan?" asked Ro-chan.
"Not dressed like that, she's not," said Iku, nodding toward Iona's blue-and-white clothes. "Where's your swimsuit?"
Iona greeted this question pretty much the same way as she had Tang's remark about beverages. "Swimsuit?"
"Don't you wear a swimsuit when you're at sea, dechi?" asked Goya.
Iona shook her head. "Nn-nn," she said earnestly. "This is my uniform."
"She can borrow one of my spares," Hacchan offered.
Goya eyed the marked difference in upper displacement between the two and said dubiously, "I don't think that would work on several levels, dechi."
"I take it swimsuits are customary equipment for Einheri submarines," said Iona.
"For most of us, yeah," Tang confirmed, nodding. "I mean, except for Ro-chan, the Germans like to go out in the full UDT rig, but, ya know... Germans."
Iona nodded. "Understood."
Her Fog data rings appeared momentarily as she ran some calculations; then, as they collapsed, her uniform seemed to transmute to yellow light and rearrange itself. When the glow faded away again, her regular clothes had been replaced by an ensemble similar to Goya's, with a Japanese-style school swimsuit under an abbreviated sailor top.
"Long-range submarine I-401, operational," she declared, then stepped off the terrazzo and joined the others in the pool, noting inwardly as she did that it was filled with seawater.
"Say, that's pretty spiffy," Scamp remarked, grinning. "Now watch this!"
So saying, she stepped up onto the diving board, squared herself up, and sprang to the end, bouncing once and launching herself into a swan dive. When she left the board, she was clad only in swimsuit, shorts, and garrison cap; by the time she hit the water, her lower legs were clad in streamlined metal boots like the tails of submarines, complete with minuscule rudders and props. She sliced into the water in this configuration, and when she surfaced, she was also sporting a pair of miniature diving planes on her head and holding a bulky weapon shaped like the prow of the sub she had once been.
"Pretty cool, right?" said Scamp, grinning.
"Pretty cool," Iona agreed, calmly but with evident sincerity.
"Gato-class showoff," Tang grumbled, but with a smile.
"OK!" said Iku. "Let's get going. Follow me!"
In response, the formation of submarines dove. Intrigued, Iona followed them, adjusting her Mental Model's internal gravity compensation to emulate their effortless way of gliding through the water. It was a peculiar sensation, freediving like this without her hull, but not unpleasant, and she found herself easily keeping up with the pack as the Einheri submarines sped across the pool.
Under the surface, Iona could see that the walls of the pool were riddled with tunnel entrances—small ones, just about wide enough for one person, lined up all along the upper walls just below the water, and a handful of bigger ones the size of highway tunnels down near the bottom. It was toward one of these that Iku led the group now. They traveled through the white-tiled tunnel for a mile or so before emerging from a cavern into a rockbound sea.
Once they were out of the tunnel, Tang let herself drop back a bit so that she was cruising alongside Iona. When she spoke, her mouth didn't move, her voice instead reaching Iona as a high-frequency undersea acoustic telephone signal.
«This is Rainbow Bay,» the American sub explained. «The body of water outside Asgard and New Yokosuka Harbors.» She pointed off to the east. «Our practice area is about 20 miles that-a-way. We'll be doing torpedo attack drills today. Although without any rigging of your own, I guess you'll just be watching...»
Iona gave Tang a hint of a smile and retuned part of her signaling array to emit a comparable frequency. «I will manage,» she said.
Vestal stepped back from the blackboard in the Armory's engineering office, far from the clamor of the operations floor, and considered the diagram she'd just finished drawing. In the lefthand column was a list of the vessels constituting the White Rose Fleet. The column on the right listed the names of ships from the first list for which the Einherjar Bureau of Ships had repair records—records dating all the way back to the mid-twentieth-century, long before the ships of Valhalla found themselves embodied, which Vestal had inherited when she took over the Armory in 2390.
The column on the left had fifteen names on it. The column on the right... had four.
"Awright. So," said Vestal. Wielding chalk, she crossed off two of the names on the left. "The I-401s are the odd ones out here, because we know there are two of them; they're both in your fleet. One was always a Fog ship, and the other was stuck in Hel until recently, so it makes sense that she was never seen around here."
Akashi nodded. "Agreed."
"So with her, them, off the board..." Vestal paused, frowning, as if unwilling to say the next thought out loud, so Akashi did it for her:
"None of the ships Admiral Ravenhair found at Midway has ever been recorded in Valhalla. Including me."
Vestal's frown deepened. Then, with a grudging nod, she said, "OK, yeah, but neither have these three, and they weren't at Midway," she said, drawing a ragged oval around three names near the bottom of the list: Lionfish, Tatsuta, and Shimakaze.
"True, but Lionfish is an anomaly," said Akashi. "She was off by herself in Hawai'i the whole time, and she had her Mental Model centuries ahead of anyone else on the list. That's a wild card we don't know how to compute for yet."
"And these two?" said Vestal, tapping her chalk against the last two names on the right. "I assure you, Kongō and Yūdachi have been around here the whole time. You don't overlook either one of them. And they're nothing like how you describe either of the ones with their names in Midgard."
"I'm not so sure about Yūdachi, I think there's some similarity there," said Akashi. "She's another outlier. You're right about Kongō, though. The one who tried to take command of us at Midway was a very different individual from the one you have here."
Vestal stepped away from the board, hands on hips, and sighed. "I dunno, Akashi," she admitted. "For a minute there, I felt like we were onto something, but now that I've written it all down like this, it doesn't hang together as well as it looked like it was going to. We're missing something." She indicated another pair of names. "I mean, if you're right, what's going on with the Tenryū class? One of them was at Midway, one wasn't, but they know each other? How does that fit?"
Akashi shook her head. "I don't know. There's so much we don't understand about... everything. Why we were left behind. Why our memories were wiped. Where Tatsuta and the others even were all this time. They came back online already under human command in Japan. They don't know where the humans found them, or even if they were all together, never mind how Earthforce co-opted Kongō." She gazed at the board for a while longer, then said, "But I can't shake the feeling that it's right here if we just knew how to look for it."
Vestal considered for a second, then said, "Come with me. I want to try something."
She led the way out a side door, onto the quay that ran along the side of the Armory building. Since it couldn't be seen from anywhere other than the adjoining back corner of the dock basin, Vestal and her fellow repair ships used it as a storage area for things that were too unwieldy to be kept inside the Armory, but too regularly needed for leaving them in the adjacent storage warehouse to be practical: stacks of armor plate, spools of electrical cable, bundles of copper and iron pipes, barrels of hydraulic fluid, and the like. At the end of the quay, a concrete ramp led down to the water.
Vestal stopped at the top of the ramp and turned to Akashi, who was regarding her quizzically but holding her peace. "Right, so. You Fog ships, you're still... ships, yeah? As in full-size hulls. Replicas of the ships you're patterned on."
Akashi nodded. "That's right."
"So this bit here I'm talking to," Vestal went on, prodding Akashi's shoulder. "It's some kind of extension. Like a ship's boat."
"Not exactly, but close enough. It's called a Mental Model. Most of us are configured so that our Union Cores are on board our Mental Models—it's the most efficient way to route our sensory inputs."
"I see. So then where's the rest of you?"
"Back at our base in Dìqiú," Akashi said. "All of us who came to Asgard with the Admiral put our hulls in standby mode and left them at anchor there."
Vestal nodded. "Makes sense. The reason I asked is because that's not the way we do it here. Our old hulls disappeared when we manifested in these bodies. Instead, what we've got... is this."
Falling silent, she composed herself into an attitude of concentration for a moment, eyes closed, head bowed. For a moment, nothing happened.
Then, with an electrical crackle and a heavy thump of displaced air, she manifested a collection of machinery similar to the pieces Akashi had seen being worked on inside. Things that looked like bits of a miniature ship: smokestack, recognizable parts of superstructure, decking, hull segments. Being a repair ship, she had no guns; instead, the decks of her two sponson-like hulls were festooned with cranes and winches, all in perfect scale.
Vestal's uniform had changed as well; she still wore her capelike welder's apron and tool belt, but her coverall was replaced with a sailor's dungarees, sleeves rolled up, trousers chopped off to shorts in a style not unlike that sported by the Fog submarine Lionfish's Mental Model, alias Léonne Poisson. Her hat was gone as well, its place taken by a bandanna tied on like a kerchief and a pair of welding goggles pushed up on her forehead.
"Repair ship USS Vestal, AR-4, ready for sortie," Vestal announced. Then, before Akashi could say anything, she turned to face her Fog colleague and said, "Yeah, I don't know what's with the shorts either, it just happens. I'm guessing something to do with hydrodynamics. Anyway, this is what we've got. Normally we don't manifest it cold like that except in emergencies, because it's easier to let the fairies help out. Safer, too, especially for the big ships."
A slightly nostalgic smile touched her face as she went on, "Vengeance got so worked up at a briefing once that he popped his rig right there in the conference room. Nearly crushed half a dozen destroyers, and it weighs so much he fell through the floor. Since then 'no rigging indoors' has been general order number two."
Ordinarly, Akashi would have been unable to resist asking what general order number one was, but at the moment she was too preoccupied with walking slowly around Vestal, examining her gear from all angles. Up close, it really was like an exquisitely detailed scale model of parts of a real World War II-vintage repair ship. The cranes had all their rigging, and it all looked like it would work. Tiny hatches presumably led to interior spaces (possibly for the use of fairies?). Even the streaks of rust looked authentic.
"I didn't just bring you out here to show off my glamorous rigging," said Vestal. "I have a point, and it's this. If your theory is correct, and you do somehow have a connection to the original Akashi, in spite of the fact that we know you're a Fog ship created in the 2030s... then you ought to have something like this. But you don't. Right?"
Akashi still didn't reply. She walked around Vestal again, hand to chin, eyes intently scanning every detail of her rigging. Internally, she compared what she saw to the comprehensive files she possessed on the external construction of twentieth-century Earth naval vessels. Every Fog repair ship carried these files, even for ships not duplicated in their own home fleets, as a contingency measure. Her conscious memories of her life before Midway might be gone, but this fundamental data remained, encoded in her being at a deeper level than mere experiential memory. It was integral to her function.
Thanks to that, she knew down to the last detail what the wartime configuration of converted United States Navy fleet collier USS Vestal should look like—every plate, every rivet, every winch and hatch and porthole. Taking into account the reduced scale, the omissions and rearrangements necessary to convert that configuration into something that a humanoid life form could wear and employ... the duplication was perfect.
Before her mind's eye, almost unbidden, a diagram unfolded.
Breaking her silence, she gestured to the piles of construction materials nearby and asked, "Do you mind if I use some of this stuff?"
Vestal raised an eyebrow. "What are you gonna do, build your own?"
The corner of Akashi's mouth quirked upward slightly. "Something like that."
"Be my guest," said Vestal. "This I gotta see."
Akashi stepped over to one of the stacks of unused armor plates, gauging its mass by eye, then bowed her head in concentration. She had no program for any of what she was about to do, really no idea whether it would even work. Just a sudden, spontaneous conviction that it was something she could do.
Her holographic data rings sprang to life, wheeling rapidly around her as her central processor crunched vast numbers in accordance with a program she was writing on the fly. Her body mass decreased slightly as a subset of her nanomaterial was retasked and released, filling the airspace around her with what looked to Vestal like glittering golden sand. Some of it hovered, outlining ghostly shapes, while the rest settled on the pile of steel and began to convert it, dissolving it into more shimmering dust that rose and swirled around her. Waste energy from the conversion process escaped as light, blotting out details, and for a few seconds Vestal could see nothing where Akashi stood but a luminous golden sphere.
Then, with the suddenness of a switched-off lamp, the corona imploded, scattering a last handful of sparkles to arc outward and fade like sparks from an electrical short.
Akashi was still right where she had been, but the stack of spare plating was completely gone, and the Fog shipgirl had changed. Her clothes were the same, that sort of junior-college school uniform, but now they were accented with overlapping plates of armor at her left shoulder and down the outside of her left leg. On her back and curving around to either side in an arc of steel about waist level was a set of rigging similar to Vestal's own, but sleeker, with a pair of more modern-looking cranes, a funnel, and some light armament in the form of what looked like a couple of antiaircraft batteries.
"Phew!" she declared, symbolically dusting off her hands. Craning her neck, she did her best to inspect her handiwork, but most of it was outside her field of vision. "So?" she asked Vestal. "How does it look?"
"... Well, I'll be dipped," said Vestal.
Fubuki and her "escort squadron" arrived on the fourth floor of the old Ninth Fleet admin building to find the hallway less packed than they'd heard it was in the morning, but still fairly full, with fellow shipgirls lining the benches set up along both walls between the elevator and Admiral Ravenhair's office door. At the sight of the line, Fubuki, who had perked up slightly at the prospect of a definite course of action on the way over, visibly wilted with disappointment.
"Maybe we should come back tomorrow," she said, but Yūdachi wasn't having it.
"You'll feel even worse tomorrow if we don't do anything, poi," she insisted.
"But look at how many are ahead of us," Fubuki pointed out. "It might be tomorrow anyway by the time everyone else has had her turn."
"Ordinarily, I would advocate for waiting your turn, on the principle of equality in all things," said Tashkent, "but under the circumstances, I think we might safely make an exception." With that, and before Fubuki had a chance to object, she stepped to the middle of the hallway, raised her voice slightly to be heard over the chatter, and declared,
"Comrades! If I may have your attention, please!"
The other shipgirls, most of them destroyers, stopped talking and turned toward her, questions on their faces. Around the middle of the line, Akigumo looked up from sketching the group nearest the door and gave the Soviet destroyer leader a curious look.
"What's up, Tashkent?" she asked.
"Comrades, I come before you to ask a favor. Not for myself, but for our gallant sister-in-arms Fubuki. There is an urgent matter upon which she must consult Admiral Ravenhair without delay."
While an incandescent blush partly overwhelmed Fubuki's exhausted pallor and she wished for the floor to open up and swallow her, concerned and puzzled murmurs swirled around the hallway.
"Fubuki-chan? What does she need to see him about?"
"Is she going to join his fleet?"
"She'd wait her turn if it was just that, this is Fubuki-chan we're talking about here."
"Is she sick?"
"Can we even get sick?"
"She sure looks sick."
"Shh! She'll hear you!"
Tashkent waited a few seconds for them to get it out of their systems, then went on, "I cannot discuss the details, but I assure you there is not a moment to be lost. I ask, in the name of the sisterhood of all kanmusu, that you cede your places in line to Comrade Fubuki so that she may see the Admiral at once."
The waiting shipgirls glanced at each other, equal parts baffled and concerned, and then there arose a jumbled chorus of affirmatives as they all unconsciously shifted slightly away from the door.
Tashkent smiled. "Thank you, Comrades. Your generosity does you credit. Who is in the Admiral's office now?"
"Kongō-san's still in there," said Kiyoshimo, who had been next in line.
"But she's stopped shouting, so maybe she's said her piece," Asashimo added with a mischievous smirk.
"We'll have to chance it. Comrade Fubuki, the floor is yours."
"Uh... thank you... everyone," said Fubuki haltingly, her ears still burning, as she made her way hesitantly toward the door. After a moment's pause, she knocked and was bade to enter.
Before following her in with the rest of the group, Gangut turned a little smile to her fellow Soviet ship and remarked in a low voice, "That was nicely done, Comrade Tashkent."
"Thank you, Comrade Gangut," Tashkent replied. "As a fellow destroyer, it was the least I could do. After all..." She glanced at Fubuki's back, a few paces ahead of her, and continued, "She is the mother of us all."
To Be Continued
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Romance of Combined Fleet Record, Volume 3
"Persistence of Memory"
in order of appearance
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Kaga
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Akagi
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Hiryū
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Sōryū
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Shōkaku
Fast Battleship USS Iowa (BB-61)
Special Type-I Destroyer Fubuki
Fast Battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62)
Fleet Aircraft Carrier Zuikaku
Destroyer Leader Tashkent
Repair Ship Akashi
Experimental Light Cruiser Yūbari
Repair Ship USS Vestal (AR-4)
Steamfitter Fairy First Class
Repair Ship USS Ajax (AR-6)
Mascot First Class Victory
Medium Endurance Cutter USCGC Acushnet (WMEC-167)
Command Cruiser Ōyodo
Special Type-I Destroyer Murakumo
Fast Battleship Kongō
Fleet Submarine USS Scamp (SS-277)
Fleet Submarine Ro-500
Fleet Submarine USS Tang (SS-306)
Fleet Submarine I-58
Fleet Submarine I-19
Fleet Submarine I-8
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Jaymie 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) 2022