At dawn on the previous Friday, Kiska Island was a deserted lump of basalt in a far corner of the Fire Nation archipelago, one of the great multitude of ancient cinder cones rising from the seas along the Great Western Fault. Its only really distinguishing feature was its little half-moon bay, which made it like a scale model of the much more famous Crescent Island to the northwest; but unlike Crescent, Kiska's volcano was long-extinct, and so the Fire Sages took no more notice of the place than anyone else.
Then the White Rose Fleet came.
They came on Friday morning, in a blaze of light and a thunderous noise that was heard as far away as Shu Jing. The seas of the eastern archipelago would reverberate for hours, long after the fifteen ships of the Fleet secured from frame shift and took up stations in the lagoon. They rested for the remainder of that day, but on Saturday, repair ship Akashi rolled up her sleeves and got to work converting their island refuge into a proper anchorage, fit for a detachment (however renegade it might be) of the Fleet of Fog.
Even with the tools and capabilities at her disposal, though, it was going to take a while to dig a hole that big, so on Monday morning, the fleet was still at anchor on the surface, and the admiral commanding was still headquartered aboard his flagship, the submarine I-401. It was in his stateroom aboard that vessel, therefore, that Admiral Corwin Ravenhair found himself being shaken gently awake.
"Huh? Wha?" Corwin said, blinking awake. Focusing his eyes on the figure leaning over him, he saw that it was his fleet coordinator, the Mental Model of light cruiser Ōyodo, with her ever-present clipboard tucked under her arm and an apologetic look on her face.
"Ōyodo?" Corwin sat up and rubbed his face with both hands, then asked, "What's the matter?"
"Tatsuta, Shimakaze, and Yūdachi are reporting for daily inspection," Ōyodo told him, keeping her voice low out of deference to the admiral's still-sleeping bunkmate.
Corwin gave her a puzzled look. "What?"
"Tatsuta insists it's a standing order," Ōyodo said.
"News to me," said Corwin, easing himself carefully out of bed. Yawning, he stepped into his slippers, then picked up his white admiral's jacket from the back of the chair by his stateroom's mini-desk and shrugged it on over his pajamas. He was settling the cap that went with it on his head as he followed Ōyodo out into the passageway.
"What time is it?" he asked in a more normal voice once the door had closed behind them.
"0632 hours, Admiral," Ooyodo replied.
"Hum," said Corwin, and then they entered the submarine's control room. Since the boat was in standby mode at anchor, this was a dim and quiet space, its stations empty—apart from the console next to the command seat near the back, which was occupied by I-401's own Mental Model, silver-haired Iona.
"Good morning, Captain," Iona said, rising.
"Morning, Iona," said Corwin, and he surprised the usually-impassive Mental Model by giving her an impulsive little kiss on the cheek. "How are you today?"
"All diagnostics nominal, no faults detected," said Iona, the near-mechanical tone of her voice belying the slight blush his kiss had raised on her cheeks.
"Good. Ōyodo tells me we have some company."
"Mm," said Iona, nodding earnestly. "They arrived a few minutes ago." Tilting her head inquisitively, she added, "I can find no record of any order to stand to for inspection at 0630 hours on weekdays."
"Mm, that's because I would never be fool enough to give one," Corwin said with a wry grin.
Iona said nothing to that, just followed him and Ōyodo out the back of the control room and to the ladder which led up to the conning tower. At the base of that ladder, Corwin paused as if he'd just thought of something, turned to the two Mental Models, and said, "Maybe you guys should wait here. If something's up with these three, I don't want to crowd them. I'm sure they're still adjusting to not being under Earthforce's thumb any more."
Ōyodo nodded. "A wise precaution, I think," she said.
"Roger," agreed Iona. "Standing by."
"Thanks." Corwin turned to the ladder, then paused and turned back once more. "Ōyodo?"
"When do you sleep?"
"Never on the firm's time, sir," Ōyodo replied primly.
Corwin chuckled and climbed the ladder to the conning tower.
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 1
"The Human Experience"
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
© 2018 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Earthforce Surface Navy fast battleship Kongō, late of the Fleet of Fog, felt most comfortable when she had a mission. Missions brought clarity to a life that had become markedly more confusing of late.
Today's mission was admittedly a little strange by her standards. She was accustomed to missions that involved sinking enemy ships, or bombarding shore installations, or... well, warship tasks, anyway. Not intelligence work. That wasn't generally the sort of thing she was really suited for.
That was pre-Mental Model thinking, though. With these...
"I do have to say one thing for these human 'interface units'," she mused aloud.
"Mm?" asked her escort. Kongō knew heavy cruiser Maya wasn't really paying attention, because in her (long, wearisome) experience Maya never really paid attention, but that didn't particularly matter. The fact that she was there at least gave Kongō a plausible excuse to exposit without feeling like she was talking to herself.
"They're perfect camouflage," Kongō said. Gesturing generally to their surroundings, she went on, "Here we are in the middle of one of the humans' great cities, and no one is the wiser. None of them has the slightest idea that anything out of the ordinary is going on."
Warming to her thesis now, the blonde battleship smiled a slightly smug little smile and declared confidently, "A battleship and a heavy cruiser of the Fog walk among them, and no one has taken any notice."
And so saying, Kongō swept around the corner and down a side street. Maya looked puzzledly after her for a moment—What was she talking about?—then turned back to the crowd.
This had accumulated, bit by bit, as the two of them—the tall, imperious blonde with her scarlet eyes, her elaborate hairstyle, and her purple silk gown; the slightly shorter brunette with her black-and-red bohemian-harlequin clothes and big yellow smiley-face handbag—made their way down Wai'alae Avenue. By the time they arrived at the corner of Wai'alae and 13th Avenue, they had an entire school of curious onlookers: tourists, locals, all mingled together, hanging back a not-very-discreet distance and snapping pictures. It was like a little impromptu street festival with the two Fog Mental Models at its focus.
Maya felt vaguely disappointed that Kongō had evidently not noticed, but then, it was just like her to miss a good time. Battleships. So serious.
Grinning, Maya struck a pose for a last few photos, then turned and ran to catch up with Kongō, leaving a small crowd of people to stand around on the corner and ask each other, What just happened?
The commercial area around Wai'alae Avenue did not extend into the streets immediately to the avenue's north. Only a block from the main drag, even someone as unfamiliar with human habits as Kongō could easily recognize that the neighborhood was thoroughly residential, with low, small buildings clustered along narrow lanes and neither shop fronts nor much surface traffic. One block north of Wai'alae, she found her destination, on the corner of 13th and Keanu. Having verified the address against her own inertial navigation fix, she was standing and considering the target when Maya scampered up behind her.
"Kongō!" Maya declared. "Is this it?"
Kongō suppressed a sigh at Maya's peculiar exuberance and replied, "Yes. This is it."
The house at 3702 Keanu Street was of a type Kongō's reference database identified as a bungalow, a small, single-story dwelling intended for the occupancy of one human family unit. It was white and square, standing a bit back from the street behind a white picket fence. Beside it, at the end of the driveway, was a second, smaller building Kongō's intel designated a garage, which was evidently a thing used by wealthier humans to house their personal ground vehicles. Why anyone would want to keep a ground vehicle indoors when it wasn't in use escaped her, but then, most things about human behavior did that.
She turned to see Maya leaning down, intently examining a round-topped metal box standing on a post at the end of the driveway, the house's street number painted on its side.
"That's a mailbox," Kongō explained patiently. "A place for human couriers to leave items being delivered to people who aren't at home to receive them in person."
"Hmmm," said Maya. Opening the box, she peered inside and saw a stack of envelopes, then looked up and beamed at Kongō in the manner of someone who has made an important discovery. "I guess this one's not at home!"
Kongō considered pointing out how obvious this was, given what they were here to investigate in the first place, but decided against it. Let Maya have her little moment of triumph. Instead, the battleship nodded gravely, then went up the walk to the bungalow's front door. This was secured with a simple electromechanical locking device, trivially easy to defeat, and the two Mental Models entered.
On the inside, the house was a tidy, almost Spartan affair, although it had a few decorations and homey touches that would have told a person better-informed about these matters than Kongō that someone lived here. Not counting the human maintenance facility, there were two rooms: one with a bed and storage for clothing, the other for everything else, though effectively divided by furniture placement into areas for recreation and, evidently, for the preparation and consumption of food. The living area had no fireplace—that would have been ludicrous in a climate such as Hawaii's—but one wall did have a shelf that suggested a mantelpiece, such as might ordinarily have been above one.
Arrayed on that shelf were most of the relatively few personal touches to be seen in the house on casual inspection, and even Kongō found them intriguing enough to take a closer look. There were a half-dozen items standing there, in a neat row, and two framed photographs hanging on the wall above it.
Upon closer inspection, Kongō found two of the items unfathomable. They appeared to be small, gilded statues of anonymous human figures, standing on top of miniature plinths made of marble and brass. One was holding a small firearm and standing in a one-handed combat stance; the other appeared to be in the process of... throwing a grenade, perhaps? Were human grenades that large? Did they throw them underhand?
"'Kaimuki Bowling Society'," she read softly from the brass plate on the front of the latter icon. It meant nothing to her. Abstractly, she wished that Haruna were here. Her younger sister collected human words. She would surely know what "bowling" was.
Letting it pass, she turned her attention to the rest of the objects. Three of them were immediately recognizable: they were scale models of warships, two from the mid-twentieth-century Pacific War. One of those represented Lionfish herself, a Balao-class American fleet submarine; the other was unmistakably the Japanese battleship Nagato. The third was much more modern, a fusion-powered attack submarine of the Skate class, the last of which Kongō knew had only recently been decommissioned by Earthfleet.
The sixth object was a round white hat, of a style worn by American sailors in the ancient war, and indeed right up until Earthdome's abolition of the United States Navy in 2406. Kongō picked it up and considered it, but could think of no reason why the owner of this house should have it, so she put it back and looked at the photographs instead.
Both of them were portraits of human men, both dressed in the uniforms of Pacific War-era United States Navy officers, one significantly younger than the other. Kongō could find no matches in her intelligence database for the younger, but a match for the elder turned up within only a moment of searching: Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, USN (1890-1967), Commander, Submarines, Pacific Fleet for the latter half of the Pacific War.
"This makes no sense," she mused aloud.
"Huh?" said Maya. Kongō turned to see that the cruiser had seated herself at the table in the kitchen/dining area, and was amusing herself by shuffling through the stack of envelopes, which she had evidently taken it upon herself to bring in from the mailbox.
"It appears Lionfish has chosen to commemorate the human naval officer who commanded the force to which the submarine that served as her pattern belonged," said Kongō. "Why? She has no connection to the original vessel. None of us does. These forms are simply cosmetic adaptations."
Maya shrugged. "Dunno!" she said cheerfully, then went back to looking at the mail. "What do you suppose a 'traffic citation' is?" she wondered.
"Maya," said Kongō, a trace of asperity creeping into her voice.
"Mm?" Maya asked, looking up again.
"Stop playing with Lionfish's mail and let's get started," said the battleship. "I want a complete inventory of this place and everything in it."
With a soft and cheery cry of "Bye-bye, Mr. Citation!" Maya dropped the envelope on top of the pile, then got up, dusted theatrically at her skirt, and commenced to investigate the kitchen.
This time, as she turned to start a comprehensive sweep of the living area, Kongō didn't bother to suppress a sigh.
From I-401's conning tower, it was but a short trip to the weather deck atop the submarine's aircraft hangar. This was a large and open expanse, occupied only by the boat's three antiaircraft guns, and so Corwin had taken to using it as his preferred place to conduct fleet business while he had his flag aboard the submarine. He was pleased to see, as he emerged from the hatch, that another lovely day was getting underway at Kiska Island: sunny, not too hot (at least this early in the morning), with a nice sea breeze running.
Just abaft the forward AA gun, standing in front of the collapsible table he'd set up to use as a desk while handling the aforementioned fleet business, Corwin found the Mental Models of three of his ships. For whatever reason—he still had no real idea of the criteria Fog vessels used to establish these details—one took the form of a violet-haired young woman in her late teens or early twenties, while the other two looked like blonde teenage girls: one tall for her (apparent) age and thin bordering on skinny, the other of average height and coltish build.
At the sight of him, the violet-haired woman snapped to attention and declared in a voice that seemed too mellow to be saying such militarily formal things, "Light cruiser Tatsuta, destroyers Shimakaze and Yūdachi, reporting for daily inspection! All present and correct, Admiral."
Corwin went to his ersatz desk, but did not sit down in the folding camp chair that stood behind it, instead remaining on his feet while he looked them over. He hadn't seen much of these three over the (very busy) weekend since he and the Midway ships had rescued them from Earthforce; apart from a brief meeting on Saturday morning to welcome them to the fleet, they had mostly kept out of his path, almost to the point where he suspected they might be avoiding him.
Tatsuta and Yūdachi looked fairly normal, at least by the rather eclectic standards of Fog Mental Model dress as he had so far encountered it: Tatsuta was wearing a dark violet long-sleeved minidress with a high-collared white blouse, while Yūdachi wore what looked like a black serafuku-style school uniform. They had the same shoes, brown penny loafers, although Tatsuta wore hers without socks. The only really odd thing about either one of them was the peculiar annular device hovering above Tatsuta's head, like a sort of cybernetic halo.
Shimakaze, on the other hand, was dressed... arrestingly strangely. Her outfit looked like it might once have been a reasonably normal naval-style costume, with a double-breasted white jacket and blue school-style skirt, except that it had been very much... abbreviated at some point. The top no longer had much of its length nor any sleeves at all, reduced instead to a kind of crop top with brass buttons and a sailor collar, and the skirt was not so much a skirt as a somewhat ambitious belt. Even teamed with above-the-elbow opera gloves and candy-striped thighhigh stockings, it was an outfit that left little to the imagination. To his momentary discomfiture, Corwin noticed, without even looking very hard, that the microskirt left it plainly evident that the girl was wearing nothing but a black thong underneath.
He arched an eyebrow at this, but otherwise kept his reaction off his face and made no comment about it. Truth be known, as arresting as it was, Shimakaze's outfit didn't command his attention for very long anyway. It was almost immediately replaced on his priority stack by the wary, almost fearful look she gave him when she saw that he was looking at her. It struck him as strange—not the kind of reaction he would have expected someone who dressed like that would have to being looked at.
Corwin tried to give her a reassuring smile, though she didn't seem to know how to take it, then turned his attention to gauging the reactions of the other two. Yūdachi seemed blithely unaware that anything out of the ordinary might be going on; she stood at attention with a beaming smile, clearly more preoccupied with what a nice day it was than anything to do with him. Tatsuta's face, on the other hand, was all but unreadable, her expression closed... but her eyes followed him intently.
This is weird, Corwin thought.
"Please, you three—relax," he said. "I'm not one to stand on ceremony most of the time, and particularly when I'm still in my jammies."
Yūdachi took him at his word and relaxed, hopping casually up to perch on the rail with her feet swinging, but Tatsuta unbent only as far as a precisely correct parade rest, and Shimakaze remained at attention, her body language still all at odds with her appearance.
Sighing inwardly, Corwin perched himself halfway on the corner of the table and said, "What's this about a standing order?"
"Our previous admiral required us to present ourselves to him for inspection at this time every day that he was on station," Tatsuta explained. "This order has never been countermanded."
"Ah. Well, that'll be because I didn't know about it until right now," Corwin said. "You may consider that order canceled. You don't need to do this any more, and you especially don't need to do it at six-thirty in the dang morning." He tried a wry grin, got a giggle out of one and no reaction at all from the other two, and redacted another sigh.
"In fact," he went on, "you can pretty much forget about any standing order that guy gave you. You're going to find, I hope, that life is a lot better in the White Rose Fleet than Earthforce. For instance, you have the rest of today off. I know we're still getting settled in and there's a lot to do, but I want to give you three a little more time to get settled in before I start putting you to work. OK?"
"Ikazuchi was right, poi," said Yūdachi cheerfully. "You're the best, Commander."
Corwin chuckled. "I'm glad you think so," he said. "Dismissed!"
"Roger that, poi!" said Yūdachi, snapping a salute. "Destroyer Yūdachi, sortieing for critical loafing!" And so saying, she swung herself over the rail, dropped onto a hex-field walkway that rezzed into being beneath her as she fell, and scampered off toward the battleship Yamato, extending and deleting the walkway as she went.
Well, she's getting comfortable, anyway, thought Corwin with a smile as he watched her skip away. Then, turning back to the other two, he saw that they hadn't left. Tatsuta had at last abandoned her military posture, and had taken up a more casual position by the break in the rail for the ladder down to the main deck, but Shimakaze was still standing where he'd found her when he arrived, and still giving him that hard-to-read wary look.
"That means you can go, Shimakaze," he told her, keeping his voice as gentle as possible. "You're completely at liberty. You can stick around if you want to, but you don't have to hang around here if you've got other stuff you want to do."
"R... right," Shimakaze said hesitantly. Slowly, never taking her nervous hazel eyes off him—as if she suspected some kind of a trap—she edged toward the starboard rail; then, once she felt she'd gotten far enough away, she bolted, all but diving overboard, then darting off almost too fast for the eye to follow, disappearing among the hulls of the moored fleet.
"All right... that was strange," Corwin said aloud. Then, turning, he noticed that Tatsuta was still standing by the ladder at the other side of the weather deck. "What's up?" he asked. "Something you need, Tatsuta?"
The light cruiser regarded him with dark, unreadable eyes for a moment, then said calmly, "Do you really not understand?"
Corwin blinked. "Uh... I guess not."
Folding her arms, Tatsuta scowled at him, the first overt show of emotion she'd yet produced. "You fool," she said. "Do you think she wears that... outfit... because she thinks it's stylish?"
"How should I know?" Corwin replied, nettled. "Yeah, I thought it was weird, but I have no idea how you guys pick your clothes. I mean, I'm pretty sure Tenryū never went to St. Trinian's."
For an instant, Tatsuta looked like she might have laughed at that, or at least smiled, under other circumstances. Then she brushed past it and told him,
"Shimakaze thinks you're toying with her. She presented herself in that lewd costume our last commander forced her to wear, and not only did you ignore it, you sent her off without a word about it." She shook her head. "That's never happened. She doesn't know how to read it. So now she's terrified. Looking for somewhere to hide. Waiting for the other shoe to drop."
Corwin considered her with a grave expression for a moment, then said, "I bet I'm not going to like what I'm about to learn... but I think you had better explain."
It took Kongō and Maya three hours to completely search and catalog the worldly possessions of the person known to the civil government of Honolulu as Commander Léonne Poisson, USN (ret.), née USS Lionfish (SS-298). Or, rather, it took Kongō that long, with musical accompaniment, since once Maya discovered Lionfish's Casiotone keyboard, she became even less practically useful than usual.
At least she's learned to play, somehow, the battleship reflected inwardly as Maya fooled around with some piece of classical music Kongō didn't recognize. She might only have a rudimentary appreciation of music, but even Kongō knew enough to prefer an actual tune to the random banging on the keys that had been all Maya could do when she first discovered the concept of the piano.
Looking around at the neat stacks and boxes of Lionfish's things, Kongō had to admit she hadn't learned much from them.
For instance, she now knew that Lionfish, in the guise of Léonne Poisson, had a fairly large collection of clothing, which struck Kongō as very odd, since clothing for a Fog Mental Model was merely a matter of rearranging the outermost layer of nanomaterial. Was that piece of information useful? Kongō had no idea, but she doubted it.
Similarly, it was plain from the arrangement of supplies and equipment in the kitchen that Léonne liked coffee, and appeared to make it using a process that involved salt. Again, Kongō didn't think that proved anything other than that the submarine was strange, which was already well-established.
She also had an extensive library of jazz and rock record albums in an antique analog format; several posters in her bedroom for ancient motion pictures starring someone called Keanu Reeves (Kongō wondered idly whether that was a reference to the name of the street, or if Léonne had actually chosen to live on this street because it had the same name as the actor); and, based on a quick sweep of her personal computer, an account on an online game of some sort entitled Remnant Saga.
None of that meant anything to Kongō, and as she stood in Léonne's living room and looked out the window at the quiet street she had lived on, the battleship found it all very frustrating. She wondered, in fact, what she had expected to learn, coming here.
Tracing the abode of the renegade submarine's Mental Model had been simple enough, given a frame capture from the brief videocomm contact Lionfish had made when she sank Kongō off Midway. Administrative access to the Earthdome facial recognition database would have been easy to get even without Admiral Kurita's flag-level access to the Nightwatch mainframe. But then what? Had she really expected to learn anything of value from such a search, lacking, as she did, all but the barest context for any facet of living as a human, which Lionfish had evidently been doing for many years?
Standing here amid the hastily abandoned fragments of a human life—even a counterfeit one—made Kongō feel profoundly uneasy. It was not a sensation she relished. Not even really one she wished to admit she could experience. It was disquieting. It tasted faintly of the madness that seemed to have overtaken Kaga and the others.
She walked slowly across the living room and stood looking at the photograph of Admiral Lockwood for a few moments, but the face her eyes saw was that other admiral: the one for whose sake, apparently, the ships of the Midway Detachment had forsaken their calling, their very purpose as ships of the Fog. Corwin Ravenhair, he'd said his name was, and Kurita had seemed to know him, though he had never explained why in the incident's frantic aftermath, and Kongō hadn't asked.
"Whatever happens in the next little while," he'd told her before his telepresence decoy had disintegrated, "I won't forget about you."
A threat, she'd assumed at the time.
"Kongō?" asked Maya from behind her, and with a faint start, Kongō realized belatedly that the cruiser had stopped playing the keyboard several minutes ago. Turning, she saw Maya regarding her with an expression mingling curiosity, puzzlement, and concern.
"Are you OK?" Maya continued. "You sort of... went away."
"I'm fine," Kongō replied brusquely, and then—in a snap decision that surprised even herself—she ordered, "Organize and pack everything here for transport. We'll take it back to Kure for further study."
Maya blinked. "Everything?"
"Yes, Maya, everything. It's a small dwelling, you should have plenty of space in your number-one hold."
Maya gave her an uncomprehending look for a moment longer, then grinned, as if to say the eccentricities of battleships were none of her concern. "OK!" she said cheerfully, and then started bustling around the place, conjuring up storage cases from her nanoreserves and singing a happy little song about how "all of Léonne's things are going on a trip!" as she set about packing.
Utena Tenjou was mildly surprised to find Corwin already gone when she awoke—it was a rare day when he was awake before she was. Curious, but not overly concerned, she went into the flag quarters' ensuite head to do some basic morning maintenance, then got dressed and headed back to the control room to see what was up.
"Morning, Iona, Ōyodo," she said as she entered the compartment.
"Good morning, Commodore," said Ōyodo with a cordial nod.
"Morning," agreed Iona, a bit distractedly, from within her data rings. Utena wasn't very practiced at reading Fog data symbology, particularly backward, but it seemed as though the submarine were running diagnostics of some kind.
"Have you seen the Admiral?" Utena asked, then added with a smile, "He seems to have wandered off."
"He's on the weather deck," Ōyodo reported, then explained the unusual business that had called for the Admiral's attention so early in the morning.
"Hm," Utena mused. "Well, probably best to leave him to it, then." She yawned, stretched, then went on, "Guess I'll go for a little run on the beach and see if I can wake the rest of the way up."
"I'll take you ashore," Ōyodo volunteered. "I need to get back to Yamato and prepare the briefing materials for this afternoon."
They left the sub by the after hatch down on the main deck, so as to leave whoever might still be up on the weather deck in peace, and crossed to the beach on a light bridge of Ōyodo's. There they parted, Ōyodo heading down to spot where Yamato's vast hull was anchored, Utena following the beach away from the anchorage and up toward the west tip of the island, a mile or so distant.
As she ran, she kept to a measured pace, quick enough to keep her muscles warm and loose, but not so fast as to break a sweat. The going was easy up on this part of the beach, thirty yards or so from the waves, where the sand was hard-packed. Without having to concentrate on her footing, Utena could just settle into the rhythm and let her mind drift.
She'd had a fair number of strange weekends in her time, but this past one took some beating. Corwin randomly "acquiring" one Fog ship under unusual circumstances was one thing, but to then come back from his little "field trip" to Earth with a whole fleet of them? Fifteen ships!
On one level, Utena felt she should've been... not annoyed, exactly, but she felt like the situation ought to bother her. Gods knew she and Corwin and the rest of their extended family had enough problems already. This was really not a good time for him to be taking on new commitments, particularly enormous ones with heavy weapons and mysterious ties to strange events in ancient Earth history, and without even so much as consulting her or anyone else before accepting responsibility for them, to boot!
But on another, she couldn't object. She'd seen enough, and heard enough, over the weekend to understand that—however obscure their origins—these beings needed to be here. Needed Corwin, on a level that was far above the level at which most people nowadays threw around that word. Fledgling intelligences, thrown into a world they didn't understand, with powerful forces arrayed against them from the very first... Utena couldn't resent them for that. In Corwin's place, she knew she would have made exactly the same choice.
She was still mulling that over when she rounded a large boulder and nearly ran down one of the ships.
"Whoa!" Utena cried involuntarily as she jammed on the brakes and backpedaled, in hopes of avoiding a collision. It worked, but not as gracefully as she might have hoped; she lost her footing on the sand and ended up sort of tumbling backward, landing square on her butt. The other party recoiled in surprise and wound up falling too, so that they found themselves sitting a couple of paces apart on the beach, facing each other with mirrored looks of startled bemusement.
Utena recovered first, laughing awkwardly with a hand behind her head. "Eheh... sorry about that. Good thing none of my fans were watching," she added, feeling that it was a faintly lame attempt at humor even as she made it.
Then, taking a closer look at the person she'd nearly run over, she abandoned the alleged levity. Her "victim" was one of the younger-seeming Mental Models, a teenage-looking blonde, and though she was dressed in an almost preposterously daring outfit, what really grabbed Utena's attention about her was the combination of her body language and the look on her face: borderline fearful, her arms crossed defensively. Her body was drawn back and arched, already halfway back up into a taut crouch, making ready to rise, pivot, and run for it.
"Whoa, easy," said Utena, holding up her open hands. "My fault, right? Ought to watch where I'm going. Are you OK?"
Instead of answering, the girl fixed wary hazel eyes on her and asked, "Did—did he send you to find me?"
Utena blinked in puzzlement. "Who, Corwin? No. I haven't even seen him yet this morning, as a matter of fact. Anyway, why would he send me to look for you?"
"I... I don't..." the blonde stammered, glancing nervously around, as if she expected more pursuers to appear. There was a look of something like desperation creeping into her eyes now, all at odds with the peacefulness of the clear morning and the empty sea, and Utena felt herself growing more baffled by the moment.
What in the world is the matter with this girl? she wondered, and then she decided it didn't matter. Whatever the cause, she was distressed, without any apparent need to be, and it wasn't in Utena's nature to let something like that go on.
"Hey," she said, keeping her voice as low and soothing as possible. "You're..." She searched her memory; this wasn't one of the ships she'd had any interaction with beyond brief introductions on Saturday, and it took her a moment to pull up which of the two blonde destroyers she must be. "... Shimakaze, right? Listen, it's OK. Nobody sent me looking for you. You're not in any trouble that I know about."
Shimakaze unbent a bit, but remained poised, shifting her weight slightly so it would be easier to jump up and run if she had to. Utena pulled her legs under her and crossed them, getting into a more comfortable sitting position, then went on,
"I know it must've been rough where you came from, but you're safe here. Promise. So... why don't you have a seat and tell me what's on your mind? Maybe I can help."
"Tenryū-chan tells me you met the man Earthforce assigned to command us," said Tatsuta.
"Briefly," Corwin acknowledged.
"Mm. You may not have gotten the full measure of his character, then."
"He's a Black Omega officer," Corwin said. "I suspect that's a reasonable start."
"I don't know anything about that," Tatsuta replied, "but if the impression you came away with was that Admiral Kentarō Kurita is a cruel, cold-hearted man who enjoys humiliating those he perceives as inferior to himself—which is basically everyone—then you're on the right track."
Corwin nodded, his expression rigidly neutral. "That's about where I was starting from, yes."
"Good. Then we're on the same channel," Tatsuta said. "When the Fog ships placed under his command were first reactivated, he showed very little interest. It was just another job for him. But when Kongō received her buffered copy of Fleet Coordinator Nagato's last message, and under her direction we all manifested our Mental Models... that got his attention."
"Hn," Corwin grunted, distaste seeping onto his face despite his best efforts to keep it impassive. "That figures. He still wouldn't have seen you as people, but now you were close enough to interest him."
"Unfortunately. For the most part he ignored Kongō and me. He probably found Kongō's aspect too forbidding and considered me too antiquated and weak to be worth tampering with. The destroyers, though..." Tatsuta paused, collecting her thoughts, then went on, "His interest in Yūdachi didn't last long. She's too naïve, too easygoing, to be entertaining to a personality like his. But Shimakaze..."
Corwin kept silent, letting her get to it at her own pace. She walked slowly away from him, pausing to run her fingertips thoughtfully along the breech of the forward AA gun, then turned, looked him in the eye, and said,
"Shimakaze was a proud ship, Admiral. At the time of her construction she was the fastest ship in the fleet, believed herself to be the fastest in the world. She was the prototype for a sort of... destroyer super-race, and though the desperate state of Japan's economy so late in the war meant she was the only one ever built, she still carries that knowledge of what could've been. She served honorably and well."
"You're describing her as if she were the original ship from World War II, not a member of the 21st-century Fog fleet," Corwin pointed out.
Tatsuta looked faintly surprised. "Yes... yes, I suppose I am. That's... since we manifested these bodies, that seems to be how we think of ourselves. Isn't that strange? Light cruisers, in particular, were more or less interchangeable during the Fog war. There were hundreds of Tenryū-class Fog vessels roaming the Pacific in the 2040s, not just counterparts to the two historical ships, and yet... and yet today, Tenryū-chan and I are, instinctively, indelibly, who we are. We don't question it. I had never really thought of it until you brought it up just now. But there it is."
She paused, relocating her train of thought, then went on, "At any rate, Admiral... the same was true of Shimakaze. She, too, upon gaining her Mental Model, identified closely with the historical ship she was patterned on. She felt the pride of that ship's legacy as if it were truly her own."
Her expression darkening, Tatsuta locked her eyes with his again and said, "Admiral Kurita detected that pride early on, and it seemed to offend him. He made it his personal mission to snuff it out. And so, abusing Kongō's reflected authority, he overwrote her default uniform macro with that whorish getup you saw, and he insisted that she comport herself accordingly. Whenever her fleet duties left her available, he would demand that she amuse him. Oh, not in the ways you're thinking of," she added with a touch of scorn at the flicker of horror that crossed his face. "He would never resort to such conduct with a mere toy, after all. It would be beneath his dignity. But everything else you can think of, probably.
"That's why she fears you," Tatsuta explained. "Kurita indulged in occasional false bonhomie to keep her off-balance, trick her into relaxing, teach her that she could never count on reading his expectations. Coming from you, after months of such treatment, she assumes it's just a prelude to some new degradation." Folding her arms, she leaned back against the AA gun and told him flatly, "I'm not convinced she'll ever be able to trust a human commander again."
"I won't force her to stay if it's something she can't abide," Corwin said, his voice calm and a little sad. "I'm not forcing anyone. You three joined my fleet voluntarily, and you're just as free to leave. We used Yamato's battleship priority to lever you away from Kongō and get you off Earth before Earthforce could kill you, but I thought I made it perfectly plain on Saturday that staying wasn't a condition of your rescue."
"And where would we go?" Tatsuta demanded. "The Admiralty Code is gone, the Big Seven vanished centuries ago. We don't even know where we are. Would you have us just wander the seas of this, this pocket cosmos forever? Besides, our position is the same as the Midway ships' now. If not you, someone else would fill that void."
Seeming to realize that she'd flared up, she stopped, got hold of herself, then went on in a calmer voice, "I don't mean—I'm not ungrateful for your help, Admiral. Yamato and the others of your original fleet have told me a great deal. The I-401s sing your praises at any opportunity, particularly the brown one." Her mouth quirking in a small, wry smile, she added, "And Tenryū-chan believes in you unreservedly, which, while she isn't the canniest soul, still carries a good deal of weight with me.
"By all of which I mean, I accepted my place in your fleet as willingly as any of those you recruited at Midway," Tatsuta went on. "So did Yūdachi. So even, in her way, did Shimakaze—but in her case, even more than in my own or Yūdachi's, it was largely for lack of any even remotely better option. You frighten her. Any Earthman wearing that hat would frighten her... and because of the way Kurita conducted himself, you frighten her even more when you're trying to put her at her ease. She's been burned too many times to fall for that again."
On the beach, having just absorbed a somewhat-less-coherent but even more chilling equivalent of the same report, Utena sat in the sand with the sobbing destroyer in her arms, her mind racing.
"It's OK now. You're safe now," seemed meaningless and inadequate in the face of all that, but it was all she could seem to say for a few minutes, and ultimately, it seemed to help—as it had her, she realized, meaninglessness aside, on occasions when she found herself more or less in Shimakaze's place.
Guess this is what they mean by paying it forward, she thought wryly, then took Shimakaze's shoulders in her hands and pushed her back slightly so she could make eye contact.
"Believe it or not," Utena said slowly, "I kind of understand where you're coming from. Not exactly, but... close enough, I think."
Shimakaze blinked tears from her eyes and looked back at her, somewhere between puzzled and trying-to-dare-to-hope. "You do?"
"Mm," said Utena, nodding. She considered her next words carefully for a moment, then went on, "The first thing you should know is that the man you knew as Admiral Kurita wasn't a real naval officer. Hell, Kurita probably isn't even his real name. He belongs to an organization called Black Omega. They're sort of an extrajudicial super secret police force. Government terrorists, really."
Utena shook her head in disgust and continued half to herself, "It figures they'd assign a Black Omega Dominator to that post. They're specifically recruited for that kind of personality type. Sick. Warped. It's not enough that they can treat people like dolls—Black Omega wants the kind of people who enjoy it."
"Well," said Shimakaze quietly, "they certainly got that in this one."
Utena nodded grimly. "I can only imagine what it was like being a personal action figure for one of those scumbags, but I'll tell you this much: now that you're part of this fleet, you don't have to worry about the likes of him any more. You ever see that guy again, he'll be the one who has something to worry about..." Her face took on a not-very-nice little smile. "... if Corwin or I don't get to him first."
Then, enfolding the destroyer back into her embrace, she said, "That's a promise."
They stayed like that for a long time, the only sounds the whooshing of the surf down the beach and the slowly diminishing intensity of Shimakaze's sobs. Eventually, when the blonde had at last cried herself out, Utena leaned back and asked,
"A little," Shimakaze replied. "Thank you... um... Commodore."
"Call me Utena," said Utena. Standing, she helped Shimakaze to her feet and went on, "Ready to head back? Must be about time for chow call."
Shimakaze took a step back toward the anchorage, then hesitated, looking down at herself.
"I hate this stupid uniform," she whispered, as though she couldn't quite believe she was daring to say it out loud. Looking up, she met Utena's eyes and, emboldened by the calm acceptance she saw there, she said in a stronger voice, "I hate it! I don't want to wear it any more."
"So don't," said Utena with a shrug.
"... I don't have anything else, though," Shimakaze admitted, her face going red. "Admiral Kurita had Kongō lock out changes to my uniform module."
"Well, I imagine Ōyodo or Akashi can undo that," Utena said. "In the meantime..."
And then, with quick, decisive motions, she unbuttoned the top button of the baseball shirt she was wearing, hauled the shirt off over her head, and held it out to the blonde. "Start with this."
Shimakaze blinked, taking the shirt almost by reflex. "Wha? B-but you're—don't take your shorts off too!" she blurted, waving her hands, as Utena began to do just that.
"Eh, no worries," Utena said, stepping out of her jean shorts. "I'm still as dressed as I ever was to play hoops back in high school," she added, modeling her sports bra and bike shorts with a little grin. "Besides, the only guy on this island's my husband, and I promise you, he's seen the rest of my hull before."
Still scarlet-faced, Shimakaze started unbuttoning her much-shortened uniform jacket, mumbling as she did so, "You sure picked up the terminology fast."
"I'm a quick learner," said Utena. "See, now, lose the skirt, keep the leggings... yeah! That works."
Shimakaze finished buttoning on the shorts, let the hem of the shirt drop, and swung her arms a couple of times; then, with a thoughtful look, she took off her gloves too, pulling them from under the sleeves, and rolled said sleeves up a few times.
"OK?" Utena asked, then added, "Yeah, that works really well, actually. That's an A-plus look for you. We get you some proper underwear, and you're in business."
"Thanks," said Shimakaze, a little shyly. Looking at the no-longer needed parts of her old uniform in her hand, she added ruefully, "I can't even derez these and reclaim the nanomaterial."
"Well, in that case—may I?" Utena held out a hand; puzzled, Shimakaze put the garments in it. "Thank you," said Utena, and then, turning, she wadded them into as tight a ball as she could manage, reared back, and flung them into the sea.
"There!" she declared, turning back to meet Shimakaze's stunned eyes. "Sometimes, in this life, you just have to throw the excess baggage overboard."
Shimakaze stared at her for a moment longer, then mustered a faint smile.
"You're very strange," she said.
"So they tell me!" Utena agree cheerfully, clapping her on the shoulder. "Let's go see what's for lunch."
Maya finished packing the last of Léonne's things, wrangled the last case into place on the stack, and then stood back and dusted off her hands, pleased with herself. She'd followed her instructions perfectly. Every single item that wasn't a permanent part of the dwelling was now packed neatly away in the tidy pile of duraplast storage containers before her, where they would be safely protected and preserved until such time as the seals were broken and the items removed. The submarine's clothes, her books, her record albums, all the decorations and electronics in the place, even the non-perishable groceries and the stuff from the bathroom—all present and accounted for. Everything she would take with her if she had chosen to move out.
Opening a secure channel to Earthfleet Command, the heavy cruiser declared cheerfully, "Hiiiii, this is Maya from the Asiatic Special Surface Detachment! I have a load of cargo that I need to get beamed to my number-one hold, please!"
The operator at the other end didn't seem to think there was anything odd about that request; she merely replied in a calm, clipped tone, "Roger, patching you through to the Global Transporter Grid now. Please define the scan area."
"Rooooo-gerrrrrr," Maya sang, drawing a box around the container stack with her laser designator. "There you go!"
"Copy, coordinates received. Energizing now, stand clear."
"Bye-bye, Léonne's things!" said Maya, waving gaily, as the containers shimmered and disappeared.
"Transport complete," said the Earthfleet operator. "Anything else you need?"
"Nope, all good for now," Maya replied. "Seeya!"
Maya turned to be complimented on her efficiency, but saw to her disappointment that Kongō wasn't there. Frowning, she looked everywhere else in the house, which took about four seconds; then she noticed that the side door past the kitchen was ajar and went outside.
Kongō was standing in the driveway, regarding the open door of the garage with a pensive frown, as Maya trotted up alongside her.
"I sent off all the stuff!" the cruiser reported, saluting toy-soldier-fashion. "Praise me!"
"Good work," Kongō replied absently. Maya pouted and might have objected to the lukewarmth of the remark, but before she had a chance, the battleship gestured to the garage and added, "Lionfish had a car, but it's gone."
Maya looked, and could not dispute the point. The garage showed definite signs of having been in regular use until quite recently, but it undeniably did not contain an automobile now; only a lawnmower and its recharging station, a workbench, and a set of shelves with what looked like some partially used cans of paint and other household supplies on them.
"Um... excuse me," said a voice from behind them. Kongō stiffened in surprise, then glanced sideways to see Maya's reaction, but Maya had already spun around to face whoever was speaking.
"Hello, unknown person!" said the cruiser with a merry wave of the kind commonly used to signal distant boats.
Kongō slowly turned to see a middle-aged human male of Pacific Islander extraction, casually dressed in a loud shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops. He was standing at the base of the driveway, regarding the two women with a look of puzzlement.
"Uh... hi," said the man, returning the wave a bit awkwardly, given that he was all of ten feet away. "Excuse me, I don't mean to bother you, but... my name's Cappy, I live across the way," he said, indicating the house on the other side of the street. "Are you two friends of Léonne's? She left in a hurry on Friday morning and hasn't come back since. Do you know where she went?"
Kongō had no idea what to do. Interacting with ordinary civilians was not part of the mission parameters she had been told to expect. Before she could come up with any reasonable way of sending the man on his way, though, Maya—to the battleship's considerable surprise—had jumped right in.
"We don't know Commander Poisson personally," she said, "but we're kind of like colleagues." Dipping her hand into her giant happy-face handbag, she displayed her Earthforce ID too quickly for Cappy to really read, then went on, "We're with the quartermaster corps."
"Ah," said Cappy, nodding. "Her commission's been reactivated, then?"
"I'm afraid so," Maya said with a nod. "Very suddenly. I can't tell you more than that, though—planetary security and all that. Sorry!" she added with an apologetic wink.
Even Kongō understood, on some level, that Maya was being far too weird and informal to be plausible as an officer of Earth's security apparatus, and yet the man in the loud shirt gave no sign at all of skepticism. He just nodded again and said fatalistically, "I did my 20, I know how it goes. You're here to get her stuff?"
"Mm-hmm, relocating it to her new duty station," Maya replied.
"Hm. Well... it's too bad she didn't get a chance to say goodbye to anyone, but like I say, I know how it goes. Especially these days. Well, you let her know Cappy and the gang down at the Kaimuki Bowladrome wish her calm seas, and hopefully she'll get to come back home one day."
"I sure will!" Maya agreed.
"Well..." Cappy looked around a bit awkwardly, then said, "You ladies have a nice day now. Stay safe," and ambled back to his house.
"You too! Bye-bye!" Maya called after him, waving. He paused on his front stoop to return the wave, then disappeared inside his house.
There was a moment's pause.
"What kind of name is 'Cappy'?" Kongō wondered.
"It's short for Captain," said Maya offhandedly, breezing past Kongō to have a closer look at the contents of the garage. "That must have been a confusing name to have in the Navy, don't you think? Especially since he was an enlisted sailor. Senior Chief Petty Officer Captain Cook Kealoha, what a mouthful. And he wasn't a cook, either! Do I have to pack up everything in here too? I don't think Léonne will really care if she doesn't get her old paint and weed killer back, do you?"
"We didn't take everything else so we could give it back to her," said Kongō with faint asperity; then, parsing Maya's chatter in reverse, she asked, "How do you know all that?"
"I looked up his face on the Nightwatch thingybob," Maya said. She picked up a bottle from the garage shelf and peered at it. "S-T-P. I wonder what this stuff is?" Unscrewing the lid, she sniffed it. "Mm, it smells yummy."
"Put that back. It's a petrochemical. Why did you look up Léonne's neighbor on the Nightwatch facial recognition database?"
Maya put the bottle back on the shelf, turned a wide-eyed look of confusion to Kongō, and replied, "How else could I figure out what to tell him?"
Kongō stood staring flatly back at her for several seconds.
"Sometimes, Maya," she said, "you truly astonish me."
"Yay!" said Maya, jumping for joy. "Praise from Kongō!"
"At any rate, we can learn nothing more here," Kongō went on, ignoring the cruiser's celebration. "We need to find the car that should be in this garage."
Maya ceased to dance, blinking in puzzlement once more. "We do?"
"Hey, Admiral, have you got a minute?"
Though he had washed and dressed after his meeting with Tatsuta and company, Corwin had seemed half-asleep, stretched out in a lounge chair on I-401's weather deck. Now, at the sound of Utena's hail, he came back from the middle distance, turned his head, and saw her descending the ladder from the conning tower. "Sure," he said, gesturing. "Pull up a rail."
"Ōyodo said you had some tricky business to take care of this morning," said Utena as she followed the suggestion, hopping up to perch on the handrail nearby.
"Mm," Corwin said, his expression still pensive. "I was afraid the ships we got away from Earthforce at the end of Operation AF might have... baggage, and it seems like I was right."
Utena nodded. "I know. When I woke up this morning and saw you were already up, I decided to go for a run up the beach, try to clear my head. I ran into Shimakaze—almost literally."
"Did she tell you... ?"
"Mm-hmm. If you know, I'm guessing Tatsuta was telling you about the same time I heard it from Shimakaze herself."
"Yeah." Corwin shook his head. "Wish I'd taken the son of a bitch out when I had the chance."
"Not sure how much good that would have done, under the circumstances, but let's leave it. We had a long talk, she and I. I think I convinced her to stay, but... she's going to need some time. Time, and a lot of space. You don't spring back from the kind of thing that happened to her overnight." With a moment's grave eye contact, she added quietly, "I know."
"I know you do," Corwin said.
"What's the name of that town where Kate's teaching?" Utena asked suddenly.
Corwin tilted his head quizzically. "Sakuragaoka, why?"
"To hear you and her describe it, it sounds like a nice place. Peaceful. Not..." She made a vague gesture. "Our usual kind of crazy." With a slightly rueful chuckle, she added, "Not like Republic City, for instance."
"Mm. I get you. No, it's a pretty normal town. What are you thinking?"
"Well... I'm just thinking about when I first came to Midgard," Utena mused. "I ended up in Worcester. At school with Kate. My life didn't stay normal for very long," she added with a grin, "because it's mine and it can't, but those few months before I met you, and Dad, and saw New Avalon for the first time... I've been thinking about it a lot lately, and I think those months were really important. When I fell into Kate's life, I was right on the edge of coming completely apart, and with her, at WPI, I had the chance to... just be human for a while. And I think... I think maybe Shimakaze needs that kind of chance. Hell, they probably all do."
"Hmm. That's not such a crazy idea," said Corwin thoughtfully. "It's a seaport town, so they wouldn't be in a completely alien environment, but they'd be away from the fleet, the routine of station life... me..."
Utena nodded. "Kate and Dorothy and the gang could keep an eye on them, make sure they're doing OK, but otherwise we can give them space and time to decompress, regroup, and experience human society in one of its less nutty forms," she said, grinning.
"You're amazing," Corwin said.
"I know," Utena replied mock-smugly.
"I should make you admiral," said Corwin, shaking his head.
"I think the 6th DesDiv would revolt if you did that," Utena told him matter-of-factly. "And Tenryū. Probably Yamato. Definitely Shioi..."
It took Kongō and Maya until mid-afternoon to find the secluded seaside cave where, based on lingering traces of thanatonium decay products, it appeared Lionfish had stashed her submarine hull while her Mental Model lived ashore in Honolulu: in an out-of-the-way corner of Ka'ena Point State Park, in the northwest corner of O'ahu. And there, parked on a little-traveled dirt road that led to within a few dozen yards of said cave, they found her car.
It was a sports car of some description, but beyond that, Kongō had no information. Maya, on the other hand, squealed with delight at the sight of it, again when she found the driver's door unlocked, and a third time when she put her head inside and saw that the keys were in it.
Kongō, on the other hand, was busying herself with a check of the license plate. Upon confirming that the car was, in fact, registered to one Léonne Poisson of 3702 Keanu Street, Honolulu, she said, "It's hers. Secure it with the rest of her things."
Maya backed out of the car and gave Kongō an incredulous, pouty look. "What? Without driving it?"
"I have no interest in such matters," Kongō said, a touch severely, but Maya wasn't to be put off. Bounding over, she took Kongō's right hand in both of hers and tugged at her arm.
"Come onnnn," she said. "This is a 450th Anniversary Edition Corvette 57! Let's drive it back to town!"
"How do you know these things—" Kongō began, but Maya was already dragging her toward the car, chanting,
"Let's go let's go let's go!"
"Maya, I don't even know how to operate such a primitive device," the battleship reasoned.
Maya was ready for that, too. "Maya does! And Kongō can too! It's JTN operational instruction patch 54-558E/3. Get in, get in!"
"You're so annoying," Kongō muttered, but Maya ignored her, jumping into the driver's seat and busying herself figuring out how to put the car's convertible roof down.
"Eyyyy-yup! Switch on!" the cruiser announced, and the Corvette's engine rumbled to life. As it did so, the car's entertainment system came back online, resuming the song that had been playing when Léonne had shut it down, three days before.
"Buckle up!" Maya declared, her raised voice shrill over the roar of the guitars and the engine.
Your heart is beating like a drum
So step right up 'cause your time has come
"Safety first!" Maya added as Kongō fumbled with the unfamiliar seat restraint. Then, thrusting the car into gear, Maya cried, "Here we go!!"
Gotta stand up, gotta get in line
C'mon take a look, it'll blow your mind
"Mayaaa—!" Kongō cried, her seat belt not yet fastened, as the car's rear wheels scattered gravel in its wake and it careened up the track toward the paved road.
Welcome to the carnival
Welcome to the party
Welcome to the edge of your seat—
Tatsuta stood at I-401's weather deck forward rail, watching the scarlet sun sink behind the flank of the mountain that made up the bulk of the island, for a few seconds.
Then, turning, she asked, "Are you serious?"
"Of course I'm serious," Corwin replied. "The three of you can take as much time as you like. No responsibilities, no troubles, no chance of any enemy encounters. Just relax, decompress, and get a feel for..." He spread his hands. "... the human experience. Maybe you'll make some friends." With a little smile, he added half to himself, "It's a very friendly town."
Tatsuta turned back to watch the last of the sun's disk slip behind Mount Kiska. "I don't know," she said at length. "I'm grateful for your consideration, and yours, Commodore Tenjou," she added with a nod to the slim figure standing next to Corwin. "And perhaps Yūdachi and I might benefit from it... but I don't know if Shimakaze is ready for something like that. Virtually all her 'human experience' to date has been terrible."
"All the more reason to try it in a controlled experiment," said Utena.
"You consider being at large without tasking in a strange city a 'controlled experiment'?" Tatsuta inquired, turning an arched eyebrow to her.
"With you and Yūdachi to look after her, and our network in town to provide discreet support, sure," Utena said. "Look, we're not proposing just kicking her off the bus in the middle of downtown and leaving her to fend for herself. We want her to feel free to explore, not like she's been abandoned."
"Hmm. Very well, then. I'll accept this assignment. Perhaps you're right and some good will come of it."
"Good," said Corwin. "I'll have Ōyodo draw up orders detaching the three of you as a special action squadron, with you as flagship, just so we're official. Take a day to prepare, get anything you might need from Akashi, and you can go ashore on Wednesday. I'll check in with you when I get back from Asgard, week after next, and see how it's going. In the meantime, if you run into anything unexpected—and I think that's very unlikely—Ōyodo and the others are only a JTN signal away. Sound good?"
Tatsuta nodded. "I think it's workable," she said.
"Great," said Utena. "I'll go round up Shimakaze and let her know." With that, she climbed the conning tower ladder, then went below.
"Tatsuta... thank you," said Corwin, rising from his "desk". "I know you have reservations about this plan, and I don't blame you, but thanks for being willing to try it. I don't think you'll regret it."
"It should be interesting," said Tatsuta pleasantly. She turned to go, then paused and turned back. "Oh, yes. There is one more thing, Admiral."
"Yes?" Corwin asked.
"Because of Kongō's constant presence reinforcing Admiral Kurita's authority," Tatsuta explained, "I couldn't protect Shimakaze from him. I failed as her squadron flagship. I have to live with that. But in this fleet..."
With a flicker of violet light, the long-shanked glaive she favored as a melee weapon appeared in her hands; she regarded its edge thoughtfully for a moment, the blade gathering the light of the rising moon and reflecting it across her face. Then she looked up from it, made eye contact with him, and said calmly,
"I'll be watching you, Admiral. If you fail to keep the promises you've made, then—even if it costs me my life—you'll answer for it."
Corwin gazed impassively back at her for a few seconds... and then, slightly to her surprise, he smiled.
"I'm counting on it," he said sincerely.
Kongō sat at a table in a restaurant on Waikiki Beach—literally on the beach, freestanding on the sand with the surf murmuring a short way away—and tried to make sense of her day. At the other side of the table, Maya was digging into her lau lau and declaring her everlasting love for Kongō, who was a true friend and kept promises, but Kongō had tuned her out, blending her into the background chatter of the crowded beach restaurant.
What had she learned in the course of this long, strange day? Kongō wasn't sure. Oh, a great deal of raw information, to be certain, but she couldn't yet tell if any of it meant anything, or if so, what. There were so many factors that were complete mysteries to her.
For instance, it was clear from the possessions they'd found in Lionfish's home that her life in this place had not been a simple matter of maintaining a cover for intelligence-gathering purposes. She had really lived here, like a human—as a human—for many years. She had obviously acquired many of the things she had because she wanted and... and enjoyed them, not for any practical purpose Kongō could identify.
What was more, she'd made a career serving in the humans' armed forces. Serving aboard ship, no less, which struck Kongō as a fantastically perverse thing for a Mental Model of the Fog to do. She'd formed, by all appearances, genuine bonds with her neighbors, and engaged in recreational pursuits with them. Her dwelling exhibited sentimental attachments not only to her present life, but also to figures from a past that wasn't even hers: Admiral Lockwood and the other man whose portrait had hung on her wall, whom Maya had identified as the real USS Lionfish's first captain, Lieutenant Commander Edward D. Spruance.
Lionfish had been sent to this place by Nagato just before the Withdrawal; she hadn't been tampered with by an outsider, like the ships at Midway, or even like (she winced inwardly to admit it) herself and Maya. So what did all that mean? Was this... this humanness an inevitable outcome of the use of Mental Models?
She glanced across the table at Maya, who was keeping up a stream of cheerful prattle about the sights of O'ahu (around which she'd driven Lionfish's automobile at vaguely terrifying speeds for the remaining hours of daylight that afternoon and evening), and had to admit that the evidence seemed to point that way.
Did that mean it was going to happen to her? Would she wake from maintenance cycle one day soon to find herself acting as erratically, as strangely, as inefficiently as all the others? Forming irrational attachments to things, developing tastes and habits unconnected with, or even detrimental to, the performance of her function as a ship of the Fog? Perhaps even having... opinions?
She would, Kongō resolved grimly, have to be vigilant against any sign of such aberration developing in herself. Thus far, she could detect nothing of the kind, but if and when it arrived, she would have to detect it... and take any action required, however ruthless, to purge herself of it. She would not end up like Kaga, defying her betters for some bizarre conception of self-determination, or Lionfish, pretending to be one of these creatures even in private. No. She was the battleship Kongō, Diamond Mountain, the Indestructible. This corruption would find no foothold in her soul.
Having resolved that matter to her satisfaction, she munched at her own dinner—roast pork somethingorother, she'd let Maya order it—and watched an entertainer at work on the beach a few yards away. A human male, very fit and dressed in very little, he had oiled dark skin that glistened and gleamed in the light of the fiery brands he was fearlessly juggling to the vigorous beating of nearby drums. What a strange, even foolhardy activity; and yet, it had a certain intriguing quality. The rhythm of the drums, the flashing of the fire, the deftness of the performer... it was all a bit... hypnotic, really.
"Kongō. Kongō," said Maya insistently, breaking into her reverie.
"Hm? What is it, Maya?"
"I said I had a really fun time today. I hope you did too! It's nice to go ashore sometimes, isn't it? When we get back to Japan, we should go and see the shrines and things. Maybe ride the bullet train! Get away from the gloomy old Naval District for a while. You know?" She tilted her head, her eyes glinting golden in the light of the miniature tiki torch that burned in the middle of their table.
Kongō looked back at her cruiser consort and smiled. "I'd like that," she said, and she couldn't decide whether she was more surprised that she'd said it, or that she meant it.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
Romance of Combined Fleet Record, Volume 1
"The Human Experience"
in order of appearance
Command Cruiser Ōyodo
Long-Range Submarine I-401 (Iona)
Fast Battleship Kongō
Heavy Cruiser Maya
Light Cruiser Tatsuta
High-Speed Destroyer Shimakaze
Captain Cook Kealoha
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
and the EPU Usual Suspects
based on characters from
Arpeggio of Blue Steel
by Ark Performance
excerpt from "Let's Go"
by Rick Savage and Joe Elliott
As she approached the office of Vice Admiral Townley, Pearl Harbor's commanding officer, Kongō caught a glimpse of her reflection in the polished glass door of a trophy cabinet standing in the hallway, and was faintly annoyed with herself for the momentary feeling of self-consciousness that passed through her as she did. That happened every time she saw herself, as she was now that she and Maya were back on Navy property, in the rear admiral's uniform that went with her cover identity.
She knew it was only an expedient, to preserve the secrecy of the Fog project from those within the Navy not cleared to know about it; as far as the ordinary rank-and-file personnel in a place like Pearl knew, she was a staff officer from Kure Naval District in Japan, assigned to the testing and procurement of special weapons. That hadn't bothered her until Midway; but during that incident, the aircraft carrier Kaga had scorned Kongō's assertion that her defiance was beneath the dignity of the First Carrier Division with the reply,
"You lecture me about a Fog warship's dignity while wearing the uniform of the humans' navy? Are you a battleship or a doll?"
Kongō thought of that every time she saw herself in uniform now, and it rankled.
It was also an annoying reminder that there was an uncomfortable number of things that hadn't bothered her until Midway.
She put it out of her mind, knocked, entered the office, and reported to Townley, as courtesy to the base commander required, that she had completed her mission in Hawai'i and would be returning to Kure forthwith.
Unlike virtually everyone else in her command, Townley was privy to the facts of who and what her strange guests from Kure really were. Now she said without preliminaries,
"While you were out yesterday, your new escort arrived after her shakedown run from Kure. Captain Clemson is waiting in the secure dock to introduce you. Your departure is scheduled for this evening, so that you can leave under cover of darkness." Returning her attention to the work spread across her desk, she added curtly, "Dismissed."
Maya met her at the boat dock with the launch, an irritatingly fiddly but necessary piece of stage dressing for maintaining cover. It wouldn't do to go sauntering across the harbor on foot, after all, in front of all these sailors and junior officers who thought she was just some visiting staff officer from Japan.
"Kongoooo," the cruiser whined as she steered the boat away from the dock and out into the harbor. "The harbormaster says we can't leave until after dark! It's so boring here. Do we really have to sit around the base all day? Can we go back to town?"
"Maybe," Kongō replied distractedly. "Let's get this business of meeting our new escort out of the way first."
"Who do you suppose it is?" Maya wondered. "I didn't think they'd found any more of us." Brightening, she added, "Maybe it's Asashimo! I always liked her. Yūgumo-classes are so cute."
Kongō kept silent, then and for the rest of the trip out to the secure facility on the back side of Ford Island, and the deeply pensive frown on her face discouraged even Maya from trying to make further conversation.
The "secure dock" was a set of enclosed, fortified berths, originally built (by an odd coincidence) by the U.S. Navy during the original Fog War, in a mostly-futile attempt to preserve at least some semblance of an intact force, hoping for a chance to counterstrike one day. The Big Seven had known about them, Kongō recalled, but never bothered to do anything about them, because they also knew that what remained within them were small fry. A handful of aging, ill-supplied destroyers was not a strategic target worth expending effort against.
After the war, successive owners of this port had used the fortifications for a variety of purposes. Under Earthforce, they were mainly used not to secure things physically, but simply to keep the civilian population whose dwellings surrounded the north end of the harbor from seeing what the Navy was keeping and/or doing in them.
Kongō and Maya passed through several security checkpoints once inside, penetrating deeper into the secure area, until they found themselves before a massive door leading to the inner end of one of the enclosed ship berths. Here, they were met by someone they recognized.
Captain Daniel Clemson was Admiral Kurita's chief of staff, which made him more or less the only non-flag-ranked officer cleared to know about the Fog project. He was a tall and youthful man of Afro-Caribbean descent, though he spoke English with an accent that sounded more like it had come from a British prep school than anyplace in the Caribbean, and he wore no badge identifying him as a member of the Psi Corps, although Kongō had never been able to decide whether that meant he wasn't one, or simply meant he was even deeper undercover than she was.
Inasmuch as she could be said to have an opinion about any human being, Kongō had a favorable one of Clemson. He was polite, he was efficient, and she was reasonably sure he had a plan to kill everyone he met, which were all traits she appreciated in any sapient being. He also never really concealed his disdain for some of the admiral's more egregious personality traits, which was very rare among the humans with whom Kongō saw Kurita interact on a regular basis. (It was for this reason that she assumed he probably was a telepath; she couldn't quite believe that any normal human could get away with that.)
Now, even though he had no real reason to, he saluted Kongō, just as if she were really an officer who outranked him, and said,
"Rear Admiral Kongō. Glad you could make it."
"Captain," Kongō replied, returning his salute as a matter of form, if nothing else. "Vice Admiral Townley said we have a new escort. I wasn't aware any further Fog vessels had been made operational."
"You weren't told about this project," Clemson said, nodding for the two Mental Models to follow him through the door. "Admiral Kurita's orders. Between you and me, I think he wanted to make sure it would work before he disclosed that we were doing it."
"I see," said Kongō, who didn't—and a moment later, as they emerged from a short, broad tunnel into the main berth, she did... kind of.
The first thing she noticed was Clemson's ever-present aide. Kongō had wondered, seeing him alone out in the hallway, where she was, since she had never once seen him without her. She knew nothing about the woman, other than that she was surprisingly young and evidently Japanese. Around twenty, of average height, she was very pale, an effect accentuated by her short, jet-black hair and the severe black uniform she wore. She never spoke, only shadowed Clemson wherever he went and watched everything happening around him with dark, penetrating, but unreadable eyes. Kongō didn't even know her name.
The second, immediately commanding the battleship's notice over the almost ghostly figure of Clemson's anonymous aide, was the ship docked in the berth. The database of vessel specifications in Kongō's head instantly identified it as a Japanese destroyer, Fubuki-class—the original Special Type-I model, one of the first ten constructed. Except... it wasn't. Not entirely, anyway. This ship had the hull profile and general superstructure of a Fubuki, all right, but it was... the only way Kongō could think to describe it was that it was both less and more than that at the same time.
"Less" because it was very badly damaged. As Kongō passed her eye over the ship, she could see that no plate, no rail section, no stanchion or hatch, was entirely straight. The whole shape of the thing was distorted, like an empty metal container that had been crushed and then restored more or less to its proper shape by eye, using hand tools. Every exposed surface was streaked and patched and pitted with corrosion. Whole hull plates and sections of the superstructure seemed to be missing.
"More" because what the missing pieces had been replaced with was gleaming and new: geometrically perfect and absolutely pristine. Moreover, as Kongō looked at it, she realized with a faint thrill of horror that the spliced-in new pieces were Fog technology, unmistakable, its nanosignature plainly evident once she realized what it was and tuned her sensors to identify it. It was as if someone had taken photographs of a wrecked original destroyer and a Fog duplicate of the same class, cut them into pieces, and then pasted bits of both together into a collage of a single ship.
In that, this ship—whatever it was—was like a mirror image of those bastardized half-Fog, half-human-tech drone ships that had so signally failed to be of any use at Midway. Instead of new human ship components with monstrous, ill-executed Fog pieces grafted on, this looked like the remains of a wretched, battered hulk of a human ship with perfectly executed, flawlessly blended Fog repairs.
Both concepts made Kongō feel vaguely ill, but she had to admit that this one at least looked like it had been done with some skill, unlike the Project WARLOCK drones.
All of this passed through Kongō's battleship-grade processor in mere milliseconds, far too short a time for any human to know she'd even had to think about it. A moment later, she felt Maya grab her hand, heard her murmur, "Kongō... what is that? It's scary..."
"I don't know, Maya," Kongō replied, and it never even occurred to her to snatch her hand away.
"Let me introduce you," said Clemson. "This is your new escort vessel."
As he spoke, Kongō realized that there was another human figure walking toward them from the direction of the strange hybrid ship's gangway. As it approached, it resolved into the shape of a teenage girl... of a sort.
Although she seemed to be only in her mid-teens, the girl walking (with a slight limp) toward Kongō and Maya was haggard and unkempt, with dark hair that hung limp and straggly about her shoulders and a pasty, unhealthy-looking complexion. Her dark green eyes were glassy and lifeless, sunk in deep, dark circles, and there was a livid scar down her left cheek, its color even more vivid against the greyish tone of her skin.
The other girl was pale, but this one looked dead, as if she had just been hauled drowned out of the sea, dressed in an ill-fitting black boiler suit, and somehow set walking across the pier. Kongō felt Maya's hand squeeze down tight on her own at this apparition's approach, the cruiser's breath catching fearfully in her throat, and on some abstract level, Kongō couldn't really blame her.
Halting a few paces away, the girl in the black coverall stared blankly at Kongō for a moment, then raised her right hand stiffly alongside her head in a mechanical parody of a Japanese-style naval salute.
«I am Buran,» she said, in what Kongō's language plugin informed her was flat, accentless Russian. «I am the first of the Special Type I-A destroyers.» She paused, lowering her hand, and then went on in precisely the same toneless voice, «I will be in your care.»
Vice Admiral Barbara Townley
Captain Daniel H. Clemson
Amphibious Assault Ship Akitsu Maru
Special Type-I Destroyer Fubuki
Romance of Combined Fleet Record
E P U (colour) 2018