"Repulse, keep moving! Get the hell out of here, I'm right behind you!"
Her orders given, Renown braced up as another Ironblood volley screamed in, trying desperately to shield herself with her rigging and sword. The Battlecruiser knew all too well that it wouldn't be enough: most of her amor belt was only six inches thick at best, and her deck armor (even accounting for the last-minute modifications her design had received after Jutland) was barely three. That much steel amounted to so much tinfoil against the 13.8-inch and 15-inch guns of the Mackensen and Yorck-class sisters, a fact testified to by the burning wrecks of a half-dozen other Royal Navy Battlecruisers.
A cacophony of massive explosions erupted around Renown as the salvo came down on top of her, and the Battlecruiser let loose an agonized scream as she was bathed in shrapnel and hellfire. Shell fragments bit into her, ripping apart what little was left of her uniform while white-hot flame burned against her skin. The blast wave sent her sprawling, nearly knocking the Royal Knight to her knees, and the crushing weight of her rigging became more apparent by the moment as her Wisdom Cube was pushed to its limits trying to keep the shipgirl in one piece.
Said Wisdom Cube was screaming at her, the alien device flooding Renown's mind with a dozen different warnings and alarms as it began to break down under the strain of battle, howling like a banshee as it tried desperately to compensate for the damage that the shipgirl's body was taking. Again and again and again it had prevented the Battlecruiser's human form from being turned into little more than pulp and bloody mist, but it's powers were reaching their limit.
In her mind's eye, Renown hastily skimmed through the status reports her Cube was giving her. They didn't paint a very pleasant picture. Her weapons systems had been all but crippled: Both of her rigging's main turrets were out of action, reduced to burning debris by enemy fire, and they would be just as useless in their non-compressed form. The much smaller secondary guns mounted near her hips were still functional, but barely, and they didn't have nearly enough range (much less the firepower) to be useful in this fight.
Not that Renown was worrying about winning the fight anymore: at this point, she would be happy just making it out alive, something that was looking more and more unlikely with every passing minute. The injuries to her human form were even worse than the damage to her rigging: The Knight had taken more hits than she could count, a fact that was laid bare by the sheer number of cuts, burns and bruises that she had suffered, covering what felt like her entire body.
The third part of Renown's being, her hull, wouldn't be of any help either. If the Battlecruiser were to dispel her rigging and manifest her ship instead, Renown would find that her hull armor had been shot into swiss cheese (mirroring the myriad of wounds that now crisscrossed her skin), while her gun control suite would be a cauldron of flame (a consequence of the nasty gash across her forehead that was flooding Renown's eyes with the reddish oil that served as the her blood, leaving her mostly blind).
Yet more shells rained down around her, and new blossoms of pain sprang into existence all across Renown's body. She fell fully to her knees this time, teeth grit in agony as another storm of metal shards cut into her skin, as more hellfire washed over her. Her Wisdom Cube wailed all the while, another burst of status reports manifesting in the Battlecruiser's mind. Even without the alerts, Renown would have known what the new points of damage were: The feeling like her ankles had both been twisted said that steering was barely holding together, and the deafening ringing in her ears told her that her if her wireless hadn't been knocked out of commission before, it had been now.
Damn it, Renown groaned, writhing in pain as her hands moved to clutch at her most painful injuries. Instinctively, the Battlecruiser screamed for help, crying out for someone, anyone, to come to her aid, but consciously she knew that her cries would be in vain: there was almost no one left hear her. Renown's escort screen had been scattered by either torpedo attacks from enemy Destroyers and Submarines or blown to pieces main gun fire from their Capital Ships; the Royal Navy's Dreadnoughts, meant to be supporting the Battlecruiser Squadrons, was nowhere to be seen; and with one exception, the rest of said Battlecruiser Squadrons were already sunk.
As she struggled to rise, one clear thought echoed through Renown's mind: How the hell did everything go so wrong?
For months, it had been no secret that the Hochseeflotte had been cooking something up. While Ironblood had shifted its naval codes (thereby preventing the Royal Navy from outright reading their communications), it was obvious from the noticeable uptick in hit-and-run raids against the British coast, increased U-Boat activity across the North Sea and sheer amount of wireless traffic coming from the Jade Estuary that Friedrich der Grosse had big plans in motion.
Everyone in Royal Navy had known that their counterparts across the North Sea were going to make another try at wresting control of the waves away from Britannia. It was a matter of when, not if, the next major battle would come. And contrary to what one might have expected, that fact had bred no sense of fear or dread among the shipgirls of Royal Navy. In fact, it had done quite the opposite: the prevailing attitude had been one of optimism and confidence, most of the fleet eager to prove that the Battle of Jutland had been a fluke and relishing at the chance to put Ironblood (which had been harping on about said battle for more than two years at that point) back in their place.
This had been especially true in Rosyth, home of the 1 st and 2 nd Royal Battlecruiser Squadrons. Lion and her command, repaired and reinforced after the mauling they'd received at Jutland, were itching for a rematch, wanting nothing more than to avenge their fallen sisters-in-arms Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible. When word had finally come that the Ironblood fleet was in the open, the Royal Battlecruisers had wasted no time in charging out into the North Sea, on the hunt for vengeance, ready and willing to pick a fight.
Well, they'd gotten one, and then some.
That voice managed to cut through the cacophony of battle and reach the Battlecruiser's ears, pulling the blonde out of her own thoughts and back to reality. Accompanying it were a quartet of echoing booms: the distinct sounds heavy caliber main guns firing. Biting back a curse, the Royal Knight wiped enough oil from her eyes to see where the cry had come from, lifting her gaze just in time to see four shells go streaking over her head towards the pursuing Ironblood shipgirls.
Renown didn't turn to see if the volley hit: she was far more concerned with its source. Charging towards her was another Battlecruiser, one that compared to the blonde was in far better (although by no means good) shape. This girl wasn't her foe (a fact made quite obvious by the tattered remains of the Royal Navy uniform she wore and the striking physical similarities that she bore to Renown herself), but that made the Royal Knight no happier to see her. The blonde growled, grimacing in pain as she tried to wave her rescuer away, but Repulse had never quite been one for following her big sister's commands.
"I told you to get out of heaaaAAAAHHHH!" Renown barked, her words melting into a cry of pain as her little sister hauled her forcefully back to her feet, the sharp jerk sending jolts of agony through her arms.
"You mean right now?!" the brunette shot back, launching another salvo at their foes. "Or should I finish saving your aft first?!"
"Damn it sis, I-!" Renown stopped short she caught sight of muzzle flashes on the horizon. "MOVE!"
Repulse didn't need to be told twice, the brunette joining her sister in redlining her engines without a second thought. In an instant both of them were pushing their propulsion systems as far as they dared, desperate to evade the incoming fire. If there was one thing that the Battlecruiser pair still had going for them, it was speed: they were the two fastest capital ships in the world, with top speeds that would have been respectable for destroyers.
But there wasn't a shipgirl on the planet that could outrun a shell. Renown managed to put some distance between herself and the spot where the Ironblood girls had been aiming, but in this case 'some' wasn't anywhere close to 'enough.' When the salvo hit, the Royal Knight was again engulfed in flame and metal shards: the Battlecruiser felt the white-hot blast wave wash over her, followed shortly afterwards by the ice-cold wave of seawater thrown up by the impacts and the deadly hail of shell fragments. There were more shrieking alarms coming from her Wisdom Cube, more spikes of pain shooting through her body. The blonde screamed as she was sent crashing back to hands and knees, a wail that quickly became a hacking cough, oily spittle spewing from the Battlecruiser's mouth.
"I'm alrighhhgggttt! ccchhhggt! chhgt!" Renown tried to choke out, her response quickly devolving into more gasping coughs as she suddenly found her lungs suddenly choked with fluid. It felt like she'd been stabbed through the side, and the rancid taste of oil flooded her mouth. Yet another set of dire warnings came from her Wisdom Cube: internal fires, multiple. Compromised internal bulkheads, multiple. Fuel line ruptures, multiple.
"CHHGT! CHHGT!" Renown struggled to breath, a hacking fit overtaking her as her airways tried desperately to clear themselves. For a moment that seemed to stretch on for an eternity, the blonde couldn't find air, her lungs burning in agony as they strained to expel the oil flooding them. Renown clawed helplessly at her neck, instinctually trying to tear out the obstruction in her throat as the coughs began to blend together, morphing into a gurgling splutter.
Renown's vision started going red, black, around the edges. Her head spun, a dizzy numbness spreading through her body. She thought someone might have been calling her name, but they sounded so…distant. Everything seemed distant. Renown felt…heavy…tired…The Battlecruiser tried to rise, then stumbled and fell, the weight of her rigging dragging her downwards. Then the dark waters below started rising up rapidly to meet her…
Something slammed into her, catching Renown just before she could fall into the depths. The impact forced the fluid out of the blonde's lungs and made her to take a deep, gasping breath: The sudden rush of fresh air was like a jumpstart for the Battlecruiser's brain. Her vision cleared, the darkness at its edges receding. Feeling rushed back into her body, the pain from her myriad wounds flushing the rest of her nervous system clear, the world snapping back into place.
Lifting her head, Renown was greeted by the sight of Repulse, her little sister's eyes filled to the brims with desperation and fear. The younger Battlecruiser had white-knuckle grips on both of the elder's shoulders, like she was afraid that if she let go her sister would disappear. The brunette seemed to be paralyzed with fear: she was shuddering and hyperventilating, a look of abject terror plastered across her face. Repulse's mouth was moving, and after a moment the ringing in Renown's ears cleared enough that she could hear what her sister was saying.
"Sis, SIS! Sis, are you okay!? ARE YOU OKAY!?"
Renown blinked dumbly for a few seconds before her brain managed to catch up with what her senses were telling her. Finally, she was able to find her voice.
"Yeah. Yeah! Yeah, I'm okay." The elder Battlecruiser nodded weakly, meeting her sister's gaze. "I'm okay."
"Are you sure!? ARE YOU SURE!?" The response was nearly hysterical.
"Yeah, yeah!" The blonde reached up and squeezed Repulse's shoulders in reassurance. "I'm still here, sis. I'm not going anywhere."
A look of utter relief came to the brunette's face, a half-mad laugh leaking out from her lips. For the briefest of moments, a small smile came to Renown's face, the slightest sense of peace coming over her. For the first time in hours, Renown felt the smallest feeling of optimism creep into her mind. Not all was lost. She was still there. She was still alive. So was her sister. They were both okay. They could still make it out of this.
For the smallest of instants, the two sisters had simply stood still, internally rejoicing at their continued survival. But the battle around them had not stopped, and without knowing it the last Royal Battlecruisers in the field had given their enemy a golden opportunity to finish them off. Two stationary targets at a range of barely 10,000 yards? For the experienced shipgirls of Ironblood, it would practically be target practice.
In almost perfect sync, a dozen Battlecruisers primed their main cannons, loading scores of 12, 13.8 and 15 inch guns. Each one took careful aim, Wisdom Cube enhanced range finder and gun directors completing the targeting calculations with almost trivial ease. And then, practically as one, they fired, and the booming retorts of the big guns sounded out across the dark waters. Hundreds of tons of shells, of hardened metal and high explosives, screamed across the sky, like dozens of shooting stars sent to grant a lethal wish.
The roar of the cannons, echoing like thunder, reached Renown's ears just before the barrage did. The blonde was moving before she'd even consciously registered the noise, some part of her reacting on pure instinct to the imminent danger. It was too late to dodge, as the telltale whistling noise the shells were making meant that the salvo was already right on top of her. It was too late to block, and even if it hadn't been there wasn't enough of her armor or rigging left to make a difference. It was even too late to try manifesting her hull and using it as a shield. There was only one thing that it wasn't too late for Renown to do: to protect her little sister.
Renown hurled herself forwards, willing her engines, her Wisdom Cube, her very being to move faster than should have been possible. The elder Battlecruiser tackled the younger around the shoulders, throwing them both to the water's surface, and without conscious thought the blonde coiled herself around her sister, splaying out her limbs and remaining rigging to try and cover as much of the brunette as possible, desperately attempting to shield Repulse's body with her own.
Whatever Repulse had been about to say was drowned out as the shells hit. To Renown, what happened next was simple: she was fully immersed in indescribable, unimaginable, all consuming pain, by an agony beyond anything that she had ever thought possible. It was like standing at the center of the end of the world, in the deepest pit of hell, on the surface of the sun, all at once. She was burning, she was being ripped apart, she was being crushed, she was dying, and the sensation of it was nearly her entire existence.
There were only two other things in Renown's entire world beyond the torture. There was Repulse, of course, lying below her in what the elder sister hoped beyond all hope was a place of relative safety. And deep in the blonde's mind was her Wisdom Cube, emitting a constant, hellishly high-pitched whine as it was finally pushed beyond its limits. Somewhere within her, Renown could feel the alien device about to rip itself apart, tearing, cracking, shattering-
Renown blinked her eye once, twice. Three times. There was darkness all around her. She was drenched in a cold sweat, her heart thundering in her chest. The Conversion Aircraft Carrier was almost certain that she was dead…right up until her eye caught sight of the glowing dials of her bedside alarm clock. A few seconds later, Renown's brain kicked into gear, catching up to what her other senses were telling her, such as the fact that the loud ringing noise flooding her ears was (rather than the sound of her Wisdom Cube being destroyed) simply her morning alarm going off.
Somewhat reassured that, yes, she was still alive, Renown sat up, trying to rub the sleep out of her eye and stretch the tension out of her shoulders. Awareness of her other senses slowly trickled into the blonde's mind: in particular, the Carrier started to feel a persistent itch somewhere in her left forearm. Instinctively, Renown reached up to scratch it…only for her right hand to hit empty air where her left arm was supposed to be.
That certainly helped the ex-Knight to shake off her grogginess. Blinking in surprise, the blonde looked down at her left arm, trying to make sense of the situation. It didn't take long for Renown to stumble across the cause of her confusion: the moment that her gaze landed on the fleshy stump that ended about halfway down her upper arm, the ex-Battlecruiser's memory came flooding back, and she remembered that the itch she was trying to scratch was nothing more than phantom pain.
Well, that explains the dream at least. No wonder her mind had gone back to Skagerrak, what with all her 'ghost limbs' acting up: there were phantom sensations not only Renown's long-lost arm, but also a tingling feeling in the feet and ankles that she also no longer had. She had a headache too, caused mainly by a small ball of pain in the socket where her left eye had once been, but also by a dull throbbing sensation around the edges of the steel plate that did duty for the back of her skull.
Every one of those little hurts was a testament to the prices that Renown had paid for surviving the Disaster of the Skagerrak. Peopled called her a living miracle for making it back, whispered that she was a lucky ship. Renown had always snorted at that description. She was lucky, all right: all her survival had cost her was a hull and riggings that had been so mangled they had been originally designated for scrapping, three limbs blown off, an eye blasted out, a traumatic head injury that had put her into a coma for three years and left her laid up in hospital for another five afterwards, and undergoing dozens, if not hundreds of surgeries as she'd hovered between life and death, the only thing keeping her alive being her miraculously still-functional (and permanently damaged) Wisdom Cube. Some luck, huh?
And those were just the physical scars. There was also the survivor's guilt of being one of the only two Royal Battlecruisers to make it back from the Disaster alive, of knowing that she hadn't been strong enough to save her friends and mentors. Of finally leaving hospital only to find that, no, time hadn't stopped for the near-decade that she'd been inside, and that the world she'd found herself in was radically different from the one that she'd known. Of trying to find her path in a country that had changed even more than she had, a country where she'd had to relearn practically everything that she had ever known.
Discovering that her little sister was every bit as broken as she herself was, just in a different way…
Shaking her head to clear it of her ghosts, Renown reached over with her good arm and clicked off her morning alarm, clicking on the lamp that sat on her bedside table in the process. Time to get up. After a second of thought, the Carrier clicked on the wireless set that sat next to the lamp as well: As always, getting ready for the day was going her to take a while, and there wasn't much harm in catching the news as she went about her morning routine.
The first order of business was getting her prosthetics on. Technically speaking, she wasn't supposed to do it without the help of her Personal Assistant, but Renown had never been one to place an undue burden on others: if she could do it herself, she would do it herself. The blonde again stretched over to her bedside table and pulled the top drawer open. Reaching inside, the ex-Battlecruiser carefully took hold of the first of the metal limbs that lay within. Even after years of practice, it was still a clumsy process with only one arm, and but the blonde managed to get the prosthetic out of the drawer without dropping it.
The hard part done with, Renown pinged her Wisdom Cube, bringing the alien device within her online. With whirrs, coughs and sputters not unlike a worn-out engine trying to start up, her Cube gradually came to life, bit by bit feeding the usual diagnostics and routine reports into the Carrier's mind. It was a slower process than Renown would have liked (ever since Skagerrak, her Wisdom Cube had been a finicky one, to put it mildly) but considering the fact that said cube should have by all rights overloaded and shattered instead of somehow keeping her alive, the ex-Knight wasn't one to complain about it.
Instead she patiently waited for the alien device to fully boot up, half-listening to the morning news as she did so. As had been status quo for the past few months, it was all political chatter: poll numbers, extracts from speeches, that sort of thing. Not that Renown had been expecting anything else: with the Trade Union Congress in full swing, and especially now that Chairman Snowden had announced his resignation, nothing else short of a war breaking out was likely to make the national news.
After a couple minutes, her Cube was ready. Grasping the metal limb in with her good arm, Renown placed the prosthetic's socket around the stump of her left arm, before sending another ping to her Cube. With a blue-white glow, the alien device synchronized with the blonde's artificial arm in a process not unlike what she would do with her hull or a Mass Production Ship. A handful of status reports arrived in Renown's mind, telling her that the limb was ready, a fact that the Carrier confirmed for herself with a few experimental flexes of the prosthetic's fingers.
Now equipped with two usable arms, Renown pulled aside her remaining bedding, uncovering the twin residual limbs that both ended about mid-thigh. She then set about repositioning herself atop the bed, trying to turn so her leg stumps were hanging over the side without overbalancing and falling off (which had happened more than once). All the while, the morning news continued to drift out of her wireless set, providing the Carrier's morning routine with a decent amount of background noise.
"…also taking the podium last night was the shipgirl RNS Repulse, Flagship and Commander-In-Chief of the Red Navy. Speaking in support of Maximalist leader Oswald Moseley, Miss Repulse…"
Renown glanced at the wireless at that, the mention of her sister having caught her attention. Slower than she usually would have, the ex-Battlecruiser reached back into her bedside drawer, half-heartedly grabbing at the metal legs inside, most of her attention now focused on the news.
"Let me preface this speech by saying that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Mr. Snowden, Mr. Horner and the other members of the Federationist faction." The voice that came out of the wireless was not that of the Repulse that Renown remembered from before the Skagerrak. That girl had been youthful and energetic, eager to prove themselves and to carve out their place in the world, and her manner of speech had reflected it: informal, carefree and friendly, with just the slightest touch of mischievousness.
No, the voice that came out of the wireless was a deeply practiced on, like the speaker had been making such speeches for years. It was a voice that belonged to a woman who had been hardened by their experiences, leaving them stiff and rigid around the edges. It was a voice that carried with it an air of commanding authority, not unlike the kind that officers had when talking to their subordinates, dead serious at all times.
"No one can deny that for the last seven years, the Chairman and his government have led us well," the speaker continued. "The Federationists have given us unity, stability and yes, prosperity. If you remember the chaos of 1925 and 1926, you know that this is no small accomplishment. Under Mr Snowden's watch, we went from a ragtag collection of dissidents, idealists and mutineers to the emergent power of Europa, if not the world."
"I am not saying that that should not be applauded. It should be. It should be cheered, hooped and hollered for. I do not deny that." It was then that the voice coming from the wireless raised slightly, becoming harder around the edges. "What I do deny is our colleagues' apparent beliefs that these are laurels to be rested on, and not foundations to be built on."
"The Federationists will tell you that what we built since the Revolution is good enough. That we should be content with what we have. That our system works, and that our status quo can be safely maintained." The voice raised again, become even more rigid. "That is simply. Not. True. It may have been true in 1929, or 1932, maybe even 1934. But it is 1936. The world around us is changing, and what was 'good enough' three or five years ago is not good enough anymore."
"If we let ourselves be blinded by the glories of our past accomplishments then we will be no better than the Royalists! Then the blind old fools that led us like lambs to slaughter" The voice was shouting now, and Renown could imagine the woman speaking gesturing wildly and shaking her fists. "Ironblood didn't defeat us because they were stronger than us, or better than us: they defeated us because while they were adapting and evolving, our so-called 'leaders' were stagnant and arrogant! I watched my closest friends by massacred because we were trained to refight the Battle of Jutland instead of the Battle of the Skagerrak. Millions of our young men were sent to die in the mud by old generals that were too set in their ways. The Royalists lost us the War because they were looking to the past instead of the future: We cannot do the same!"
"If we do not learn from their mistakes, if we do not do better than they did, then we will share their fate! If we live in our past, we will not have a future!" The voice crescendoed again, building towards its climax. "To those that would say that my fears are unwarranted, I should not have to remind anyone here that our friends are few and our foes are many. I say thatwe cannot be content with the present because our enemies are most certainly not content with theirs!"
"Do any of us believe that the Royalists and their pawns will ever stop plotting against us, planning to tear down everything we have built?" boomed the voice. "Do any of us believe that Ironblood, which has put half of Europa in chains, is not hoping to enslave us too? Do any of us believe that our comrades in Iberia, Latin America and Eagle Union are not being crushed underfoot by the forces of reaction?"
"Whether we want it to or not, the struggle for the future of our nation, for the future of the world, is coming. And when it does, we must be ready! That means that we cannot settle for 'good enough!' That means that we cannot simply accept things as they are! That means that we must seize the means to claim the future, for if we don't, then our enemies will!"
The newscaster came back after that, prattling on about other speeches and speakers, but Renown had stopped paying attention by then. She sat there for a long moment, simply processing what she had just heard. Without thinking, Renown's eye scanned across the top of her bedside table, coming to rest on the small picture frame that sat next to her wireless set. It held the image of nine shipgirls, all dressed in the uniforms of the Royal Battlecruiser Squadrons, each one of them smiling happily. The brunette on the far right of the second row seemed especially joyous.
Even after all these years, I still can't believe that's her sometimes. Unconsciously, Renown reached out and tapped the picture with her good hand. Old memories welled up in her mind, of better and simpler times, of back when her greatest concern had been making sure that her sister was paying attention in their tactical classes. Stopping her from slacking off when Lion and Princess Royal weren't looking. Learning how to shoot from Australia, swordplay from Tiger. See her smiling and laughing through it all.
What happened to you, sis? The question idly crossed the Carrier's mind, unbidden. It was rhetorical, of course. Renown was well aware of the answer: she was using a metal arm to put on artificial legs because of it, after all.
Speaking of which…With a defeated sigh and a shake of her head, the blonde went back to work at attaching her prosthetics. With no further distractions (and use of both hands), the process took no more than a few minutes. As the ex-Battlecruiser's Wisdom Cube synced up with her legs and she tenuously stood up on them, she spared one last glance at the image of her old squadron, the ghost of a smile on her lips. Gazing back at from from the picture, Repulse's face was practically aglow as she flashed twin peace signs at the camera, her grin wide and bright.
Since Skagerrak, Renown had yet to see that smile.
And sometimes, she wondered if she ever would again.