It took Renown around an hour getting through the rest of her daily preparations. It normally took half that long: she’d had a slower morning than usual, mainly due to the pall that her nightmare (and hearing the speech that her sister had given) had cast over her. The Aircraft Carrier had gotten lost in her memories more than once, while she’d been getting dressed especially: Renown had found herself repeatedly freezing up when she noticed little things like the fact that everything in her wardrobe contained the color red, or when she remembered that the Union Jack on her eyepatch no longer reflected the nation’s flag.
Not that this was particularly unusual for the Converted Battlecruiser: At some level, many of the changes to the Renown’s world since the Revolution had been bothering the blonde ever since she’d been discharged from hospital. The sheer number of differences between her old life and this new one never ceased to create a certain sense of discomfort in the ex-Royal Knight: Sometimes, Renown almost felt like she was stuck in a dream, like she had become lost in a vast illusion, living her life in some kind of distorted mirror. She felt lost, anchorless, a stranger in a familiar land.
Not that anyone could blame her for feeling like that: Unlike most of the shipgirls that had gone from Royal to Red, Renown hadn’t gotten much of a say in which side she’d wound up with when the old order had fallen apart. Like so many other people throughout the British Isles, she hadn’t actually joined with the Syndicalists until after they had seized control of the country: The ex-Battlecruiser hadn’t been part of the Red Tide so much as she’d been swept up by it.
When the flame of the Revolution had been ignited across Britain, Renown had been in no condition to join with either side: she’d still been lying in a hospital bed in Edinburgh. No longer comatose, sure, but to call her anywhere close to fully recovered would have been a joke. While the rest of the fleet had been choosing between Loyalist and Revolutionary, the blonde had been busy doing things like relearning to speak in complex sentences and getting used to walking on legs that she couldn’t feel.
Even if Renown had been healthy enough to pick a side, it’s not like she could have fought for her choice. With her hull lying with its superstructure dismantled in a breakers yard and her Wisdom Cube barely holding together, getting involved in the shooting (which for her would have meant going up against other shipgirls) probably would have amounted to a very roundabout form of suicide. So no, when the fighting had swept through the Firth of Forth, the crippled Battlecruiser hadn’t gone out to make a stand for her ideals: she’d hunkered down and prayed that a stray shell wouldn’t come through the ceiling. The hospital she’d been in had been secured by the local Red militias, and that had been that.
And so it was that Renown had wound up in the Red Navy. It wasn’t as if the new administration had been bad to her. Far from it: the blonde had found herself being treated quite well, quickly discovering that even in the ‘rational and classless’ Syndicalist Britain, being the sister of the woman who called the shots (even the ever-increasingly estranged sister) came with a lot of perks. She’d found herself ‘coincidentally’ bumped up to the top of the list for things like her hull being Carrier-converted, having prosthetics fitted, nomination as Flagship of the newly-organized North Sea Fleet, therapy appointments, you name it. No matter what the New Britain might have been, it was certainly better than spending any more time in the endless succession of hospital rooms that she’d lived with for the preceding seven or so years. So no, Renown didn’t see the Red Navy as bad, per se.
It was just…different.
Different meant a lot a lot of, well, different things, large, small and in-between. It meant learning how to use the metric system. It meant eating a lot of fish (because they couldn’t import food from the Dominions anymore). It meant that the Union Jack had been largely replaced with the Torch and Gear, the old symbol of Britain having been squeezed into the top left corner of the flag as an afterthought. It meant having to know what things like ‘proletarian’ and ‘syndicalist’ meant (and that the people in charge really didn’t like if you were what they called ‘bourgeois’ or ‘reactionary’). It meant getting used to the color red being used everywhere and anywhere. It meant that she wasn’t supposed to hum ‘God Save the Queen’ anymore (Rule Britannia, she’d found, was still acceptable).
For someone who’d spent most of a decade effectively in stasis in hospital, it was rather like being suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool. And like someone who had suddenly been thrown into the deep end of the pool, for a while the former Royal Knight had struggled to do anything more than try and keep herself afloat, flailing helplessly as the currents of change had swept her into the new world.
In her struggle to keep her head above water in the post-Revolutionary world, Renown had found herself clutching to what things she could recognize like they were lifelines, the blonde holding onto whatever familiarity she could to keep from being drowned in the raging tide of change and Revolution. The task was far from impossible: Not everything in this new world was different from the one that had come before, something that was especially true in the military.
Critically for the shipgirl, the Navy was still, well, the Navy: the names, symbols and colors might have been changed, but deep down things in the Fleets weren’t all that different from what Renown remembered. Her sister might claim otherwise, but the Conversion Aircraft Carrier had found that in a lot of ways the ‘new’ Navy was just the old one in a coat of (red) paint. Despite Trade Congress might have wanted, they’d found that the Syndicalist model for the military couldn’t quite be fully applied at sea.
Nominally, the Red Navy was run by ‘Naval Committees’ that mimicked the structure of the volunteer militias that comprised the nation’s army. In theory, officers were elected by these Committees and were supposed to wield far less authority than they had in the Royal Navy, with most power to run the Fleets nominally vested in the Committees themselves, which were meant to meet regularly to handle matters of all sorts. Didn’t like your CO? You could just wait a few months and vote them out in the next Committee meeting, assuming you could get enough of your fellows to agree with you. Everyone was equal, everyone ran everything together. That was how it was supposed to go, anyways.
In practice? The Red Navy might hold regular votes to appoint their Fleet and Squadron Flagships, but these ‘elections’ were rarely anything more than formalities that rubber-stamped the appointments of the girls who were either the strongest, the most experienced, or had connections with the Supreme Naval Committee down in London. The simple fact was that a Navy, any Navy, simply couldn’t be run the way that the Trade Congress’ army was.
Despite all the Red Navy’s boasting about how they had implemented democracy and unionization in their Fleets and the supposed superiority of their system, they effectively had the same hierarchical structure that every other Fleet in the world did. Idealism about Syndicalism hadn’t lasted long in the Navy before being replaced by ruthless pragmatism. Protecting the New Britain was the priority, the methods for doing so of secondary importance: Getting to actually participate in things the institutions and benefits promised by the Revolution was reserved for the civilians.
There was more than just patriotic self-sacrifice keeping democracy out of the Navy. There was also the matter of who was winning all the elections. While committee run militias of ‘citizen soldiers’ might work fine for the army (where you could hand just about anyone a rifle and have a half-decent grunt with a few week’s training), the duties one would find aboard a warship (or as a warship) tended to simply be too technical, too specialized, and requiring too much training to rely on any kind of ‘citizen sailors.’ An election in the Army might be held among those who had barely completed grade-school, but in the Navy the voters would all possess at least two years’ worth of highly-technical training that would, at bare minimum, require the equivalent of a completed secondary education (and the shipgirls were incarnated with such knowledge in their heads).
As a natural result, the leadership selection process in the Fleets is of course more vigorous than might be found in the military’s land forces. The scrutiny of the candidates then became far tougher: policies had to be that much more detailed, the promises that much more realistic. Blustering one’s way to the top was nearly impossible when everyone you were trying to convince to vote for you knew exactly what you were talking about.
Not that personal ambition had much of a place among the girls anyways. A shipgirl might manifest with any kinds of personality type, trait and/or quirk, but deep down every last one of them (be they Royal, Red, or otherwise) was at least to some extent a professional soldier. They might be called on to defend ideals of democracy, monarchy, syndicalism or what have you, the girls themselves were very rarely anything but meritocrats.
Military competence was the utmost priority when looking for the Navy’s leaders, not the ideals of, say, Revolutionary Syndicalism. Meritocracy was the name of the game whether you were on the land, in the air or at sea, and while the Army might not quite want to recognize that as a fact, in the Red Navy it sure as hell was. If anything, the importance of competent leadership was amplified in the Fleets, not lessened: The bare fact of the matter was that having a bad Admiral would cost your nation far more than having a bad General would. Navies are naturally smaller than armies, and will therefore always feel their losses more sharply: A mistake on the part of a Captain in the army might get a Company destroyed, losses that could be replaced in a matter weeks or months, while a mistake on the part of a Captain in the Navy might lose a vessel that would not be replaced for years. By necessity, prudence took priority over boldness at sea far more than it did on land.
It such an election atmosphere, trying to win votes from a well-educated (verging on intelligentsia) electorate who consistently put their nation’s interests before their own and naturally skewed towards caution and conservatism, who could win but those who had previously proved that they actually knew what they were doing? Professionals elected other professionals: This fact was reflected in nearly every vote in the New Britain’s Fleets. What commanded respect and authority with the shipgirls hadn’t been fundamentally changed: if you were going to advance through the ranks of the military, then leadership ability, organizational skill and combat prowess still trumped all else.
And so it was that it was not the idealistic or those with revolutionary zeal that were swept into power in the Red Navy’s elections, but rather those known to be competent and experienced. The shipgirls of Red Navy might nominally be democratic syndicalists, but in practice they consistently elected as their commanders those that would lead them best on the battlefield, meaning that those that got the most votes were tended almost overwhelmingly to be either those who had led the first wave of mutinies during the Revolution or those who were veterans of the Great War (and the lists of who belonged to those two groups were more-or-less identical).
For a good example of how nominal the Navy’s ‘democracy’ was, take Renown herself: the Converted Battlecruiser hadn’t even known that she’d been up for election as North Sea Fleet Flagship until a matter of a few weeks before ballot day (and she certainly hadn’t bothered campaigning for the job). But she’d still won the vote quite decisively, almost exclusively by virtue of being the Fleet’s then-most modern Carrier, her recognition she’d gained for making it through the Great War alive, and the recommendation of her fellow Skagerrak survivor, the Navy’s Commander-In-Chief.
The ex-Battlecruiser had kept the job ever since, keeping her posting in the following election cycle by essentially doing nothing more than being basically competent: given that no-one in the Fleet could match her pedigree, none of the other girls had even bothered trying to run against her. The seat of Flagship of the North Sea Fleet was supposedly up for grabs again with the National Elections going on, but barring the Flagship of the Navy deciding to entirely rearrange the Fleets, in a few weeks Renown would be winning re-election unopposed (as was the norm for most of the Red Navy’s elected positions).
The Red Navy’s other supposed organizational changes similarly existed only on paper. The Naval Committees, which were supposed to act on checks on the authority of the Flagships, were rarely anything more than advisory bodies at absolute best: functionally, said Flagships having just as much control as they had held in back in the Royal Navy, reflecting the fact that a command hierarchy functioned better than a command committee on the battlefield. The power of the Committees could probably have been enforced if the order came down from the top, but Renown wasn’t holding her breath for it to happen: the Flagship of the Navy, in the name of keeping the Red Navy ‘moving into the future’, had made a habit of wielding her authority just as assertively and aggressively Queen Elizabeth ever had, if not more so.
And even if Repulse did decide that the Red Navy needed to implement the political theories that they were supposedly defending and shift to a truly unionized organizational structure, it was a change that would come slowly, especially to Renown’s Rosyth-based North Sea Fleet. In large part that was because of good old fashion bureaucratic slowness: decisions in London always took their sweet time reaching the rest of the country, and when they did then usually ran headlong into all sorts of logistical roadblocks like budget concerns and worries over local autonomy.
That latter point was especially prevalent in Scotland, where the North Sea Fleet spent the far majority of its time stationed. The Scots had spent something on the order of the last thousand years finding ways to mitigate English influence and had therefore built up something of a natural resistance to anything that came up from the south: Even after Syndicalism had swept northwards and claimed the Highlands for its own, that resistance had passively (and in a few rare cases, not-so-passively) continued. Almost everything north of the Anglo-Scottish border solidly supported the Trade Congress’ Autonomist faction, which had spent the years since the since the Revolution advocating for (as the name would imply) increased autonomy for Britain’s more outlying areas (with some hardliners even going as far as to call for outright independence).
That didn’t mean that the Supreme Naval Committee wasn’t going to try to implement its vision of what a proper Fleet should be, of course. They’d even started to make some progress: The newer shipgirls, those that had been built after the Revolution, had increasingly had their Wisdom Cubes shaped by Syndicalist ideals, manifested by the wills of the New Britain. With each passing year, the Trade Congress’ vision of a unionized Navy came incrementally closer to fruition, the shipgirls leaving the dockyards and entering the Fleets slowly becoming more and more willing and able to put the ‘Red’ into Red Navy.
But an odd quirk in how said shipgirls were being assigned had as of yet allowed the North Sea Fleet to be a good bit more…traditionally run, then the Commander-in-Chief probably would have liked: the majority of the newer girls were being sent into the Channel Fleet, stationed down in London and Dover. Ironblood, right across the North Sea and sharing a long land border with the Trade Congress’ main ally the Vichya Commune, was deemed the far more imminent threat to the Revolution then the more-distant Exiles, and way that the disposition of the Fleets reflected that belief: the younger and more modern shipgirls (and thus theoretically stronger ones) were kept in the south, ready to respond to any movement by the Hochseeflotte at a moment’s notice.
This left the North Sea Fleet (which was effectively relegated to being a Reserve Fleet, assigned the duties of discouraging any incursions by the badly weakened Loyalists in Maple Monarchy and supporting any Channel Fleet actions in the North Sea) to be manned primarily by former members of Royal Navy, a fact that was especially true among the command staff. Maybe a few of them actually believed in the teachings of the Revolution (or had at least convinced themselves and those around them that they did), but such girls were a relatively small minority.
The rest of the ex-Royal Navy girls were a mixed bag of those that could be lumped into one of three general categories. They were a): the ones that had had been loyal to the Crown right up until the moment that they had gotten the orders to start shooting at the militias or the mutineers, b): the ones that had had some kind of score to settle with the High Court, or c): the ones that had sat out all the fighting and had later been given a choice between joining up or being interred. These weren’t exactly the kinds of girls that went around chanting “Break the Chains”: most of them had stayed in Britain far more out of a sense of loyalty to the Isles themselves then any sort of idealism about the New Britain.
Even a decade later, that mindset (that the shipgirls were the Defenders of the British Isles rather than the Defenders of the Syndicalist Revolution) hadn’t gone away. The reason for this was simple: while you could take the shipgirls out of Royal Navy, it was a damn lot harder to take Royal Navy out of the shipgirls. That statement was quite literal: the ideals of the old Britain had been engrained into the shipgirls that had served the Crown from the very moment of their inception, the older shipgirls of Britain (with the aid of the mysterious Wisdom Cubes) having been literally incarnated from the ideals, wills and memories that had been bred, shaped and maintained by Royal Navy’s traditions.
In the eyes of many in the North Sea Fleet, there were many parts of the heritage left behind by Royal Navy that were better off embraced, not rejected outright. What had come before still meant something, even in an organization as obsessed with the future as the Red Navy: Plenty of the girls in Rosyth still took great pride in being part of the lineage of Francis Drake and Horatio Nelson, in being heirs to the legacy of the Battles of Trafalgar and Gravelines. The Royal Navy’s centuries of tradition, all its glories and honors won, were not easily erased, not even by the twin calamities of the Disaster of the Skagerrak and the Revolution of 1925.
There were more personal connections to the past as well, of course: while the state’s propaganda might paint the Royal Navy as having been full of stagnation, frivolity and arrogance, the veterans who had actually served in it tended to hold a different (and far softer) view. Many had fond memories of that dated to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, or even the pre-Exile reign of Queen Warspite: they could recall that yes, there had been some good things about Britain in the years before the arrival of the Revolution, and they were far slower to paint those days as darkly as the Trade Congress did.
These were the girls that remembered with smiles and laughs the tea parties and picnics in the Royal Gardens and Galas held by the Queen, who had seen such things not as signs of corruption and elitism but of friendship and beauty. These were the girls that had had friends (and a few deeply unfortunate cases like Rodney’s, sisters) among those that would eventually become the core of the Loyalist Fleet, who looked upon the Royal Navy-in-Exile not as mortal foes but as misguided prodigal comrades. These were the girls that still believed in the things that Royal Navy had once stood for, and still tried to guide Red Navy towards the old ideals of grace, humanity and elegance.
Someone in the government, the army or even just the normal citizenry who expressed such sympathies for the old regime might have quite quickly fond themselves being interviewed by the Intelligence Services. The shipgirls of the North Sea Fleet, though, had found a saving grace from such things, provided by (of all things) Ironblood: the Kaiser’s massive post-war naval building projects (in conjunction with much of the British Fleet choosing Exile over siding with the Syndicalists during the Revolution) had left the young Red Navy too badly outnumbered to even consider weakening itself over political reasons.
The threat of an Ironblood Intervention had loomed over the early years of the Trade Congress’ rule like a storm hiding just over the horizon, as had the lessons learned from North Union’s failure to overthrow Northern Parliament: that internal infighting before full control of the nation had been consolidated would be suicidal for the Revolution. With those two facts in mind, the ideological clash between revolutionary zealotry and military pragmatism had gone decisively in favor of the latter.
As long as Ironblood remained a threat to the Revolution, the Supreme Naval Committee would be forced to either grit their teeth and tolerate the various nostalgias of the ex-Royal Navy girls or risk crippling itself in the face of a superior enemy. An unwritten agreement had wound up developing: So long as the longings for the past did not become overt, so long the numbers game remained tilted in Ironblood’s favor and so long as the North Sea Fleet could pull its weight in battle, then it would more-or-less free to internally structure and operate itself however it wished. That said Fleet had wound up very much resembling the old Grand Fleet did not go unnoticed by anyone, and whispers of Loyalist spies and Scottish separatists were facts of life in the Firth of Forth’s rumor mill.
Renown, for her part, was all for this arrangement. For someone as utterly bewildered as she was by everything that the Trade Congress had wrought in the last decade, the comforting familiarity that the North Sea Fleet was able to provide her with was an outright godsend. Here, finally, was somewhere in the New Britain that she more-or-less fit in, somewhere that she could (somewhat) manage to get on with her life.
In every other part of the post-Revolution Isles, Renown was an anachronism, a relic from a past that the regime would rather forget. No matter where she’d gone or what she’d done, everything about the ex-Battlecruiser (from the way that she dressed to the way she’d spoken to the way she’d held herself in public) had screamed ‘Royal Navy’ and ‘Knight of the Crown’, a fact that had been both deeply frowned upon by the new administration and deeply embarrassing for Repulse’s nascent political career (it was hard to present oneself as the best voice for the nation’s military interests when one’s sister went around looking like they were spying for Warspite).
Renown had obviously had no place in the newly-formed Channel Fleet, and in general trying to fit herself into the Trade Congress’ mold of what a shipgirl should be had failed completely (with every attempt at educating herself on the nuances of Syndicalism and the Revolution either bouncing straight off her thick skull or going right over it). Retirement hadn’t been a viable option either: a half-cripple who’d spent literally their entire existence doing a very specialized job in the military wasn’t very likely to be able to make a living in a country that they had been familiar with, much less one that had been as radically remade as the New Britain (and going into a veterans home would have thrown the blonde straight back into a world of endless hospital rooms all-too-much like the ones that she’d just gotten out of).
The North Sea Fleet had been the Renown’s last chance for finding a place in the world that she had found herself in short of trying to bolt across the North Atlantic and joining up with the Loyalists (which, so long as her sister remained in Britain, was not going to happen). That it was similar enough to the old Royal Navy to be recognizable, that there was enough familiarity here for the blonde to be able to find her way forwards with her life, was something for which the ex-Battlecruiser thanked the God that the government said didn’t exist.
True, even here Renown was still something of an oddity, of a woman out of time, but unlike just about everywhere else in Trade Congress territory it wasn’t to the extent that the blonde almost couldn’t function by herself. Unlike places like London, Dover and Portsmouth, Rosyth hadn’t been painted so red that the Conversion Aircraft Carrier couldn’t recognize the parts of the Isles she’d once lived in, served, and loved that resided beneath. In the Firth of Forth, the appearances, the people, the very rhythms of life weren’t quite so alien as they were further south.
There had been changes, of course: given the Trade Congress’ zeal for cutting ties with Britain’s past, it would have been impossible for there not to be. But the triple combination of Rosyth’s distance from the heart of the Revolution, its Scottish stubbornness and the traditional leanings of its shipgirls had managed to preserve a certain sense of continuity with the world that Renown had known before Skagerrak. And if you knew where and how to look, you could find the links to the past quite easily.
For instance, in the old Royal Navy, the Maid Corps would have acted as servants at a Tea Party in the Royal Gardens; In the new North Sea Fleet, various girls’ ‘Personal Assistants’ would ‘help out’ at a ‘Social Gathering’ in the Public Gardens. That was but one example of what was a pretty common occurrence: a fixture of the past being kept alive under a new name and in new colors. Renown could probably name a dozen more off the top of her head, all of it evidence that no matter how much it had changed, Britain had ultimately stayed, well, Britain.
It still never stopped raining, everyone you met was still incredibly well mannered (or bitingly sarcastic, or both), and the food was still…well, you had to have grown up with it to appreciate it. No, the North Sea Fleet wasn’t the old Battlecruiser Squadron, but at least the resemblance was there. It wasn’t quite what the blonde remembered, sure, but it was as close as she was going to get, and in this case that was good enough for her.
That wasn’t to say that the fingerprint of the Revolution wasn’t present in Rosyth. Even here, you couldn’t just forget that you were part of the Red Navy instead of the Royal: while most of the port’s physical landmarks had stayed just about the same (dock facilities and Headquarters buildings being more expensive to replace than one might think), the 20-foot tall steel statue of her little sister that greeted Renown every morning when she arrived at headquarters made sure of that everyone remembered that the shipgirls here no longer served the Crown.
The monument captured the likeness of one of the great leaders of the Revolution, the shipgirl that had overthrown the decadent likes of Warspite and Valiant and helped bring the New Britain into the world. According to the stories, it stood on the very spot where Repulse had first declared her allegiance to the Revolution, on the very spot where the Red Navy had been founded. Here was a great heroine presented in all her glory, standing tall like a conquering queen, face set in a look of grim determination, rigging and blade at the ready. Bold words were emblazoned on the pedestal upon which this warrior woman stood: ‘Quid Tangit Frangitur’- Latin for ‘Who Touches Me Is Broken.’
Renown had no idea whether or not to call the statue an accurate depiction of her sister. Physically it was a good match, and it certainly matched up with the persona and image that her sister had spent the last decade presenting in public (that of the hardened veteran that was determined to never let something like the Disaster of the Skagerrak ever happen again). But every time the ex-Battlecruiser saw her sister in the papers (or heard her speak on the wireless), something started nagging at the Aircraft Carrier.
Much like the country itself, Repulse was just so…different now. Renown had a hard time considering the girl she’d known before Skagerrak with the woman who she knew of now to be the same person. The blonde couldn’t just lie down and accept that her little sister had changed so much: the young girl that she’d been built with, trained with and lived with, the one who had always been so happy and full of life, couldn’t just be completely gone inside of the scarred and embittered woman with the same face who’d emerged since Skagerrak.
Renown could count on one hand the glimpses of the old Repulse she’d seen since the Disaster: The day she’d woken from her coma, the day she’d been discharged from hospital, and the completion of her Carrier rebuild. Outside of that…hell, outside of that they’d barely seen each other, period. Ever since that Ironblood armor-piercing shell had nearly blown her brains out, Renown and her sister had been growing apart.
Maybe it had been inevitable. While the elder sister had spent the three years following Skagerrak lying in a coma, hovering between life and death (and the next five years afterwards barely coherent enough to feed herself), the younger had been healthy enough to be spend the rest of the war on active duty, being bounced from around the Fleet as the new Queen of Royal Navy tried to figure out what exactly to do with what was left of the Royal Battlecruisers. This had left the two rarely able to see each other, and in what was perhaps the greatest tragedy of them all, those years that her older sister was absent from her life may well have been the years that Repulse had needed her the most.
Barely a month after the last guns had fallen silent, still wearing casts and bandages from the battle, Repulse had found herself being hauled before the Admiralty Board. As the only member of the Royal Battlecruiser Squadrons that was any sort of conditions to be answering questions, the brunette had been placed at the center of the Royal Navy’s Official Inquiry into what had happened in the Skagerrak that day. It hadn’t mattered that she had been the least experienced and lowest ranking Capital Ship present at the battle: in the absence of her deceased superiors, the board had grilled Repulse as if she had been the commanding officer, asking her questions that only Lion or Princess Royal (the actual squadron commanders) would have been qualified to answer.
That hadn’t even been the worst of it. The public had been out for blood, the press demanding answers for how the supposedly invincible Royal Navy had been apparently so soundly defeated. Also not helping matters in the least was the fact that Valiant (the shipgirl appointed to run the proceedings) might well have had in agenda to push, looking for who she could pin the blame of the Disaster on: in later years, the nascent Red Navy would flatly accuse the Battleship with having been more concerned about protecting the memory of Queen Elizabeth and supporting the legitimacy of the newly-coronated Queen Warspite then establishing any sort of truth about what had actually happened in the Skagerrak.
In short, Repulse (an underqualified and possibly, if not probably, shell-shocked young girl) was forced to defend the honor of her fallen comrades in the face of overwhelming public pressure to let them be scapegoated, was being asked questions that’s answers had died with her Squadron Flagship, and was meant to counter accusations being hurled by someone who may or may not have been looking to toss her to the wolves. To say that the following experience was unpleasant would have been quite an understatement. And with the deck thus stacked, willfully or otherwise, the end result had been quite predictable.
The Inquiry had found that the Royal Battlecruiser Squadrons had ‘behaved with the utmost recklessness and arrogance…had failed to take even the most basic precautions against an enemy ambush…had failed utterly in their duty to act as reconnaissance for the main body of the fleet, leaving said body blind and vulnerable…’ and so on. In the Official History of the Royal Navy, the blame for the Disaster of the Skagerrak would be laid squarely at the feet of the Battlecruisers: Lion and Princess Royal (and to a lesser extent Tiger, Inflexible, Indomitable and Australia) were condemned to be remembered as the pack of fools that had brought ruin to the themselves and the Fleet, with the survivors only going unpunished by virtue of having held no command authority at the time.
Repulse had had no one to lean on throughout the whole ordeal. Renown had still been lying half-dead, having her nth surgery, and the small handful of other Royal Battlecruiser that remained afloat had had little-to-no comfort to give her: the Courageous-class sisters had been sympathetic, but having spent their lives sequestered away for either the so-called ‘Baltic Project’ or doing naval aviation experiments, there hadn’t been enough of a relationship there to offer any kind of real support, and it was a similar story with the brunette’s Revenge-class half-sisters, who she’d likewise never been that close to. Meanwhile her new CO, New Zealand (the only other remaining veteran in the squadron, having been spared Skagerrak by routine repairs), barely tried to hide the fact that she would have far preferred to have had her sister Australia to have been the one to make it back.
To everyone else, Repulse had become a pariah, an outcast, a lost soul desperately searching for purpose in life. Her close friends were gone, killed in front of her, as were her mentors. Her superiors, those that she was supposed to look to as leaders and role models, had (intentionally or not) thrown her and the aforementioned close friends under the bus for what were at least in part their own mistakes. Most of the public had seen her as a failure that, unlike the rest of the damn bitches in the Battlecruiser Squadrons, hadn’t even had the decency to die in battle.
Renown, the only person left in the world who might have been able to help her had been in no condition to be acting as a therapist, being physically even worse off than she was, and with the brunette still on active duty she’d rarely gotten the chance to visit anyways. Alone and without direction, Repulse had become for some time a hollow shell of a person, a walking ghost with no life of their own. She’d clung to existence for the sake of her sister, holding desperately to the tiniest sliver of hope that the elder Battlecruiser would somehow recover. All the while her demons, the voices telling the younger Battlecruiser to lie down and let it all end or to let herself hate all those that had hurt her, had slowly become stronger and stronger and stronger, harder and harder and harder to resist.
And then one day, Repulse had found herself reading a little red pamphlet, and had found a Revolutionary new outlet for her pain…
The sisters had never talked about any of this. They’d never talked about the friends and mentors that they’d lost that dark day in the Skagerrak, never talked about the woman that Repulse had grown into, never talked about the choices she’d made while Renown had been lying comatose. At first, the wounds had simply been too raw, too fresh, too painful, for the subjects to be raised. Then the younger had been too busy trying to build a Navy from scratch, and the elder trying to adapt to the new world that she’d been thrown headlong into.
And then Renown had started realizing that the answers to questions like ‘could I have helped you’ and ‘could I have talked you out of it?’ and ‘would I have joined you?’ and ‘would I have stopped you?’ and ‘could I have been a better big sister?’ all terrified her. She’d realized that she didn’t just not know how deep her Repulse’s changes ran, she also didn’t want to know. The chance that the energetic, bright and joyous girl that she’d known might truly be well and truly gone, ground to dust in her absence, that the blonde had failed to be there when her little sister had most needed her…that possibility scared the Aircraft Carrier out of her mind. She wanted to hold on to the hope that the Repulse she’d known and loved was still in there somewhere, that the Flagship of the Navy’s continued toleration of the North Sea Fleet’s traditionalist slant was a sign of it, but…
But Renown didn’t want to take the risks involved in finding out. She didn’t want to push the issue and discover that the old Repulse really was gone for good. So whenever the two had spoken, the blonde had done her damnedest to make sure that none of it, any of it, ever came up. It had been like the ex-Battlecruiser had been walking on eggshells around her sister, always careful to avoid anything that might stir up the ghosts of the past, dreading that she might stumble across the proof that the girl she’d been manifested with no longer existed.
It was cowardice, she knew. Renown had wound up taking the craven’s way out, running off to the North Sea Fleet the moment that she’d gotten the chance and not looking back since. Oh, God knew she wanted to bridge the gap between them, God knew that the distance between the sisters (seemingly growing by the day) was tearing the elder’s heart out bit by tiny bit. But the fear, the fear that Repulse really had changed that much, really wasn’t the girl she’d known anymore…even the Red Navy’s second-best Carrier, the hardened veteran who had survived the hellfire of Skagerrak, couldn’t muster up the courage to face something like that.
Out of all the things that Renown had had to deal with since Ironblood had nearly blown her to pieces, out of everything from her prosthetic limbs and half-blindness to the culture shock of her immersion in the New Britain, the worst was by far the emotional wall that had sprung up between her and her once-inseparable sibling. Skagerrak hadn’t just broken the sister’s bodies and spirits: the Disaster and its fallout had all but shattered the previously unshakable bond between them. They’d gone from using their own bodies to shield each other and dragging each other hundreds of miles to safety to being barely able to talk about the weather.
Nowadays the two acted more like professional colleagues than anything. Their current interactions reflected that, tending to be laconic and emotionless. Military reports tended to be the only times they got to converse, and they didn’t do much to take advantage of the chances. They almost always stayed strictly on topic about whatever new official matter had come up, rarely straying even as far as discussing things like each other’s health. Letters were blunt and to the point, phone calls short and impersonal. The two still said things like ‘I love you, sis’, but Renown was increasingly unsure if either of them were actually saying it with any conviction.
“Miss? Are you alright? You look somewhat pale.”
Renown blinked. The blonde had been so lost in thought that she hadn’t even realized that she’d reached her office. The question had come from her Personal Assistant and Secretary, the Light Cruiser Newcastle. As far as the Trade Congress-built shipgirls went, the dark-haired girl was one of the better ones, being much less…zealous regarding the ideals of syndicalism than many of her sisters were, a product of both nature and nurture: her construction in a shipyard in, well, Newcastle, had apparently latently imbued her with the Autonomist leanings of your typical post-Revolution Scotswoman, and her training under in decorum and manners under Rodney (the Dreadnought having long ago made it a personal point to try and tutor the new girls entering the Fleet in such things).
Newcastle had stood up from her desk besides the doors to Renown’s office, concern clearly written across her expression. Renown shook her head, trying to wave her PA away and put what she hoped was a look of reassurance on her own face.
“It’s nothing, Newcastle. Just didn’t sleep very well.”
The eldest of the Town-class hummed at that for a moment, frowning. Then an idea seemed to strike her, the Light Cruiser quickly bending down and starting to rummage through her desk drawers.
“Well, we can hardly have our Flagship working while half asleep. Can I make you a cup of coffee or a spot of tea before you go on duty?”
The blonde perked up a bit at that, a half-smile coming to her face. “Tea, please.” Then Renown’s face shifted into a slight frown. “As long as its actual tea, that is.”
Newcastle smirked a bit at that. “Ah. I assume that you’d prefer we forgo partaking in our nation’s attempts at creating a domestic substitute.”
“If you try giving me that crap and calling it tea, I’m putting you on bulin duty for the rest of the year.”
That got a light laugh out of the Light Cruiser, and Renown couldn’t help but grin in response. 10 minutes later and the pair were sat across from each other at the secretary’s desk, enjoying the traditional beverage of Brits everywhere. Let it never be said that Newcastle didn’t know how to brew tea. That it was actually tea (a relative rarity in the New Britain, given that half of India was still under Loyalist control and that the relations between the Trade Congress and the other half was …interesting, to say the least) made it all the better.
“Feeling better, Miss?”
Another sip of tea before Renown nodded, a contented look across her face, her nerves already calming somewhat. “Yes, much. Thank you, Newcastle.”
“Do you need anything else?”
The real question, ‘do you want to talk about whatever was bothering you’, went unasked. Downing more tea, Renown shook her head. “No, I should be alright now. Just needed to wake all the way up.”
The Carrier thought that she saw the ghost of a frown flash across the Light Cruisers face, and the blonde felt a bit guilty about turning down her PA’s unspoken offer to listen to her vent about whatever was on her mind. But the ex-Battlecruiser’s thoughts were quite personal (and political) in nature: They certainly weren’t the kind of things that you spilled your guts about to, well, anyone, really, but especially not to someone that you didn’t sincerely and intimately trust.
It was nothing against Newcastle herself: the Light Cruiser was an excellent assistant, and Renown could probably trust her with her life in a combat situation. But the two were far more comrades-in-arms than they were actual friends. It was yet another scar from the Skagerrak: ever since her old Squadron had been all but wiped out, the Converted Battlecruiser had found herself having trouble letting down her walls and connecting with the girls around her, especially those that had been built after the Revolution.
Oh, there were a few girls in the Fleet that she might consider to be her friends (Rodney, Glorious, maybe Glowworm), but she didn’t think of any of them as being close enough to talk about her various issues with. And given that her sister (who she was supposed to be able to talk to about anything) was the one laying at the heart of most of said issues, she was off the table too, leaving the ex-Royal Knight exactly no one to talk to about her myriad of troubles trying to find a place for herself in the post-Revolution world.
With a sigh, Renown gulped down the rest of the tea in her cup. None of that even considered what might happen if the wrong person overheard you. The Carrier had learned a long time ago that the Trade Congress didn’t appreciate people that got stuck in the past: if you had problems reconciling yourself with the world the Revolution had created, you either learned how to deal with them yourself or you got a visit from the Intelligence Services. A shipgirl (especially a shipgirl in the North Sea Fleet) could get away with it more than the average citizen of the New Britain, but the blonde had absolutely no intention of trying to test how much more.
No, far better to just keep your head down and not let anyone get the wrong ideas about you. And the best way to do that was to be too good at your job to be replaceable. Speaking of which…
“Right then.” Renown set aside her teacup, standing up and stretching out her limbs as she did so. “Time to get cracking.” With that, the Flagship of the North Sea Fleet turned to enter her office. “Thank you again for the tea, Newcastle.”
“No worries, Miss. It was no trouble at all,” the Secretary nodded in reply, her smile not quite reaching her eyes as she opened the office door for her superior. As the Light Cruiser did so, a thought seemed to strike her, and she spoke again. “Oh. Before you start, I should remind you that Sheffield will be here later today with orders from the Supreme Naval Committee.”
The trace of a grimace crossed Renown’s face at that, the blonde pausing for half an instant as she entered her office. “Thank you for the reminder. Ring me when she gets here, would you?”
“Of course, Miss.”
Renown entered her office without a further word, the heavy wooden door clicking shut behind her. The room before her was rather barebones compared to what one might expect from being the office of the woman who was supposed to be the most powerful shipgirl in the North Sea Fleet: bare walls, bookshelves lying mostly empty, display cases with nothing in them, a simple oaken desk dominating the room. Upon this last piece of furniture lay the Flagship’s daily endeavor: a small mountain’s worth of paperwork, waiting to be scaled.
Just looking at the pile made Renown’s wrist start to ache. This was the one time in her life that the ex-Battlecruiser wished that she had lost her right arm at Skagerrak instead of her left: the strain from all the signatures and notations that she’d written (and would write in the future) would probably have worn out a prosthetic just as much as it did the tendons and muscles of her poor flesh-and-blood limb, but at least in the former case she at least wouldn’t be able to feel it.
If there was one thing that the Trade Congress loved more than Marxist Dialectic or the color red, it was having accurate record keeping. When you were running a collectivist government, you needed to make sure that you were keeping all the bureaucrats and state functionaries accountable to the people, and having everyone leave a paper trail was a great way to do that. By keeping track of everything that you could possibly keep track of, it would be all the harder for someone to, say, start embezzling public funds: just find where the shortage was and trace it back through the records to its source. Great idea in theory.
Functionally, this meant that you seemed to need about a half-dozen signatures to on a half-dozen different forms in order to get approval to do literally anything. If you wanted to get something done, you needed permission from the Fleet Flagships, the Squadron Flagships, the Naval Committees, etc. Such a system would have been bad enough if it was just a matter of managing supply requisitions, transfer notices, inventories, training and patrol schedules, coordination with the other Fleets and all the other typical functions of a normal Navy, but the Red Navy had decided to take it another great flying leap further.
Back during the Revolution, in accordance with their syndicalist ideals, the Trade Congress had gone ahead and tried to nationalize just about everything in the British Isles. In the course of this process, nearly anything even tangentially related to oceanic activities had somehow wound up under the watch of the Red Navy (they being only organization under Trade Congress authority with experience dealing with the sea). Shipbuilding? Commercial fishing? Overseas trade? Customs inspections? Maritime search and rescue? Yup, all of them and then some had become the responsibilities of the Fleets.
The resulting equation was simple: vast bureaucratic requirements plus expanded role of the Navy equaled Renown investing in a wrist brace (Braces, actually: over the course of her eight years running the North Sea Fleet, she’d worn out more than one). And ice packs. And a program of wrist exercises. And about acupuncture. And meticulously combing through the entire Regulations Code of the Red Navy to figure out exactly how much she was allowed to delegate to her subordinates. And being tempted to force herself to learn how to use her non-dominant artificial arm as her writing hand.
Any normal person probably would have started going mad under the workload. Here, then stood the greatest proof of them all that the Flagship of the North Sea Fleet wasn’t quite right in her head: Renown had always found herself…not quite enjoying the task, per se, but she certainly appreciating the seemingly endless distraction from her personal troubles that it was able to provide. Most shipgirls would have despised being stuck at a desk and being drowned in an endless sea of paperwork, but when your alternative was getting stuck being endlessly reminded of how the times had passed you by…
Different people had different ways of trying to cope when they stopped having a place in world around them. Some people tried drinking away their troubles. Some people tried obsessively training themselves to get stronger. Some people wrote poetry, some people cried until they ran out of tears, some people just shut themselves down. Renown? She buried herself in her work. Every hour that the Carrier spent buried neck deep in forms, briefings and meeting transcripts was an hour that she wasn’t spending driving herself mad trying to deal with her various existential angsts or attempting to resolve the paradoxes of her post-Revolution life, and was therefore an hour that the blonde was glad for.
Today was no different. Renown’s morning identity crisis was rapidly crushed beneath the weight of what seemed like an endless avalanche of documents, certificates, dossiers and archives that the Fleet Flagship was to review and revise, confirm or deny. Gone from the Carrier’s mind were worries about her strained relationship with her sister, her doubts about certain aspects of the Revolution and her struggles to establish a place for herself in the New Britain, swept out of her thoughts by the rapidly incoming tide of reports, requests and regulations.
The rest of the morning blurred away as the blonde carved her way through the labyrinth of papers and red tape before her, slowly but surely ticking all the boxes and writing all the signatures that were required to make sure that the North Sea Fleet could keep running: Requisitions for oil, ammunition, spare parts, and rations; creating rosters for the patrols to be sent to man the anti-Siren pickets east of Iceland; allotting timeslots for training in the combat exercise area; double checking to make sure that rooms in the dorms had been properly reallocated to allow the incoming new girls to have housing; answering inquiries from the Channel Fleet about combat readiness and supply usage.
It wasn’t just military matters, either: there was plenty to do regarding local politics as well. Answering complaints from the Firth of Forth’s fisherman about how the girls’ patrol routes were scaring away their catches; dockyard construction progress reports from all over Scotland; responding to inquiries from the Greater Lothian Union Congress about the Fleet’s ongoing investigation into the Norwegian and Danish smuggling that was fueling the black markets popping up across the region; familiarizing herself with details about the trade negotiations with the aforementioned Norwegians and Danes, to be forwarded down to the Supreme Committee.
Dutifully and effectively, Renown dealt with it all. The signature of ‘RNS Renown, Hull Identification Number AV-5’ flowed from her pen without ceasing, innumerable notes and citations scribbled down in the margins of her papers, all the correct boxes marked with black ‘x’s. After a few hours of endless writing her arm was starting to stiffen up, but years of experience struggling up the paperwork mountain told the Carrier that she still had a few good hours to go before it started feeling like it would fall off. The blonde allowed herself a slight smile: despite its inauspicious start, the day finally seemed to be going well.
The desk phone buzzed: an internal call from her Secretary. Without looking up from her work, Renown reached over and tapped the button to accept the call. “Yes, Newcastle?”
“Sheffield has arrived, Miss.”
And just like that, the day wasn’t going well anymore. The Flagship’s pen ground to a stop, and with a resigned sigh verging on a groan, the blonde shook her head, setting aside the report that she had been reviewing and her writing implement along with it.
“Alright. Send her in.”
“Of course, Miss,” came the response from the Light Cruiser. In the few seconds she had before the door opened, Renown stretched out her arms and legs, trying to shake some of the soreness out of her right hand. Her face settled into a slight frown as she waited for Sheffield to enter, the Carrier mumbling to herself under her breath, steeling herself for the coming confrontation. “Let’s get this over with.”
A moment later, in walked Sheffield, the Intelligence Officer’s face set in its usual expression of stony stoicism. It wasn’t quite a look of self-assured haughtiness, but it didn’t need to be: just the way that the Light Cruiser walked was more than enough to exude an aura of something hovered between arrogance and self-righteousness. The Town-class shipgirl carried herself like anyone and everyone she ran into was just some kind of pest to be swatted away, like she was the most important person in any room that she walked into.
The unfortunate thing was that in a lot of ways, the Light Cruiser was the most important person in any room that she walked into, and she damn well knew it. Whenever someone wearing Sheffield’s uniform (black cloak, red beret, Torch-and-Gear pin on their lapel) showed up at your door, it was probably a good time to start praying. Like it did with any other member of the Intelligence Services, the New Britain had granted Sheffield broad authority and powers to ‘do whatever was necessary to protect the Revolution from any dangers that may threaten it’, which was a very patriotic way of saying that the Light Cruiser could very easily turn the life of anyone who rubbed her the wrong way into a living hell.
Just from that, Renown wouldn’t have liked Sheffield on principle. That was to be expected: the blonde doubted that there was a nation on the earth where the personnel in charge of national security were actually liked by their countrymen. The Carrier had tried not to let that pre-color her perception of the Light Cruiser: Despite their fearsome reputation, Renown tended to think of most of the people in the Intelligence Services as being, well, people, and the former Royal Knight liked to think that she wasn’t one to prejudge a person just because of their occupation.
Underneath the cloak there was usually just someone trying to do an incredibly unpopular and difficult job, and the Flagship was generally willing to give such people the benefit of the doubt. It wasn’t like the Royal Navy hadn’t had its own counterintelligence operatives, and those poor souls had always managed to maintain a certain level of civility and restraint. Just being a spook didn’t earn you a write-off in the blonde’s book.
No, it wasn’t being a spook that had earned Sheffield Renown’s dislike: it had been Sheffield herself. The years that the two had known each other had not softened the ex-Royal Knight’s opinion towards the spy in the least. In fact, they had done the just the opposite, imbuing the Converted Battlecruiser with a deeply rooted (and deeply personal) distaste for the Intelligence Operative. The yellow-eyed girl’s ice-cold personality, her blunt mannerisms, and especially her actions had burned any attempt to build a bridge between her and the Flagship.
Sheffield wasn’t just a spy. Sheffield enjoyed, no, reveled in, being a spy. She was a spy that didn’t hesitate to push the boundaries of both the law and basic morality in pursuit of her objectives. There was no doubt in Renown’s mind that, if they were in the Royal Navy instead of the Red, the yellow-eyed girl would have been drummed out of the fleet without a second thought, thrown out as a callous and unfeeling sociopath.
Sheffield was, in a word, a fanatic, with politics that Oswald Moseley might have thought were crossing a line. The Town-class Cruiser (and wasn’t that hard to believe, that she could be the sister of girls as decent as Newcastle and Glasgow) possessed a certain kind of zealotry for Syndicalism that only the most absolute adherents to a cause could hope to muster, was driven to believe in the New Britain as if she had experienced a religious revelation. But rather than becoming a bleeding-heart politician ranting about the injustices of capitalism and imperialism, Sheffield’s devotion to the Revolution had taken on subtler (and altogether much more terrifying) form.
Sheffield was the kind of spook that you used to watch the other spooks. When people spoke in hushed whispers about suspected dissidents vanishing without a trace in the dead of night, they looked over their shoulders for people like Sheffield. The Light Cruiser’s stoic exterior hid what was apparently an utter disdain for anything and anyone that her mind perceived to be a potential enemy of the Trade Congress, and given that the yellow-eyed girl had long ago crossed that ever-so-fine line between ‘extremely diligent’ and ‘outright paranoid’, her list of potential enemies of the Trade Congress could be quite long indeed.
And once she’d caught the scent of treason (or even just thought that she had), God help the poor soul she was going after: she pursued her prey as if she were a damn bloodhound. To Sheffield, things like ‘due process’ and ‘innocent until proven guilty’ were roadblocks to be bypassed, and not civil liberties to be upheld. Well aware of her terrifying reputation, the yellow-eyed shipgirl was far from being above using it to browbeat, bully and intimidate her suspects into submission. The Trade Congress’ Constitution did guarantee the rights of the accused regarding normal crimes, but such protections were waived in the case of suspected counter-Revolutionary activity, something that the Intelligence Services (and Sheffield in particular) were all too aware of.
That the spy’s arrogance was actually somehow somewhat justified only made things worse: that the likes of the Royal Navy-In-Exile and Ironblood were actively trying to sabotage and undermine the New Britain by deploying a constant trickle of spies to the isles wasn’t some kind of deeply buried secret, it was a fact of life. Every few months, counterintelligence actually did uncover a spy from one of the New Britain’s myriad of enemies (or at least concrete evidence of one), and such events only made the Light Cruiser more aggressive in her hunts, more prone to seeing foes on every side and especially more convinced of the righteousness of her actions.
Where she wasn’t seeing outright treason, the yellow-eyed girl thought she saw backsliding, half-heartedness, laziness and decadence. The Intelligence Operative seemed to hold nearly the entirety of the rest of Red Navy in perpetual contempt for being less Revolutionarily zealous (and thusly, somehow, less militarily competent) than her. Apparently almost no one short of the likes of Repulse herself had gained Sheffield’s approval, and that left almost no one to be above her disdain. She treated the other shipgirls like incompetents to whipped into shape, and that was on her good days.
That Sheffield was, as a member of the Intelligence Services, beyond Renown’s reach to discipline served to aggravate the Flagship to no end. Politically, the Light Cruiser was all-but untouchable: for however long the Trade Congress’ enemies kept attempting to spy on it, the Red Navy would need to have girls like Sheffield in it. Despite (or, God forbid, because of) her at times…questionable methodology, the Intelligence Operative was damn good at her job, leaving her too valuable to the regime to punish.
It wasn’t as if she was a waste of a good hull and riggings, either: haughty though Sheffield might have been, the Fleet Flagship had seen firsthand in combat exercises that the Light Cruiser was no slouch in a fight. As much as Renown would have loved to simply despise every part of the yellow-eyed girl’s being, the fact remained that, like it or not, Sheffield’s skills as both an Intelligence Operative and a warrior merited a certain begrudging respect.
In the end, Renown had bitten her tongue and just accepted that she would have to live with the Light Cruiser occasionally butting into her life. Mercifully, the yellow-eyed girl was far from a constant presence in Rosyth: the Red Navy Intelligence Services operated as their own Fleet independent of the others, their operatives being temporarily attached to a given squadron as was needed (and only on the permission of the Fleet Flagships) rather than being permanently embedded in a certain Fleet.
That those in the military could simply vote to keep the spooks out of their affairs was one of the few times that the Carrier was actually happy for an organizational reform that the New Britain had made. Another small blessing: military pragmatism still held the edge over Revolutionary zeal in the calculus of authority. Those in the upper echelons of the command hierarchies (like, say, the Flagship of the Red Navy’s second strongest Battle Fleet) could still tell the Intelligence Services to keep their dogs on their leashes.
There were rumors that that might be changing soon if Moseley got elected Chairman of the Trade Congress, seeing as the Totalists talked a lot about keeping a closer eye out for treason in just about every walk of life, but that hadn’t happened just yet. For now at least, Renown figured that if Sheffield decided that she wanted to try talking the Flagship into letting the Intelligence Services trample on some part basic decency, she would have about an even-money chance of getting away with telling the Light Cruiser to shove off. The blonde would just needed to play her cards right while doing it.
The salute that Sheffield was giving her was almost painfully correct, the Light Cruiser’s expression completely unreadable and yet somehow contemptuous at the same time. Wearing what Renown hoped was a poker face of her own, the blonde returned the salute with a nod. “Operative. Take a seat.”
Silently, with no wasted movement, the yellow-eyed girl did so, maintaining perfect posture as she seated herself in the wooden chair across the desk from Renown’s own. Without a further word, the Light Cruiser pulled a trio of manilla envelopes from the satchel at her side and placed them on the Flagship’s desk, each one of them stamped all over with terms like ‘TOP SECRET’ and ‘DESTORY AFTER READING’.
As Renown tore open the first envelope, labelled ‘PROJECT DAMOCLES,’ the yellow-eyed girl spoke, her voice a steely monotone. “These orders come directly from the Supreme Naval Committee.”
“Next week at an unspecified time, you will receive a wireless transmission with the following phrase: ‘There was a sharpened sword above his head.’ It will signal the arrival to this base of an unscheduled supply train from London. You are to immediately offload its cargo and transport it with all possible haste to our research outpost in the Faroes.”
Sheffield leaned forwards and tapped the desk with her index finger, her expression hardening as she did so. “That cargo is to reach the Faroes by any means necessary. The scale of the escort is being left to your discretion, but I must state that only those that are known to be absolutely loyal to the New Britain are to be assigned to this operation. Similarly, it is to appear in no official records. You are to endeavor to keep this mission as secret as possible.”
Her point made, the Light Cruiser returned to her usual posture. “Once you have made sure that the cargo has safely reached the research outpost, you are to send a message to the Supreme Naval Committee containing the following phrase: ‘That hung there by the thinnest simple thread.’ This will confirm to us that the operation has been completed. Any questions?”
I don’t suppose that you’ll tell me what I’m escorting, will you? The question went passed Renown’s head, but the Carrier stayed silent. It wasn’t an issue worth making a stand over: it wouldn’t be the first time that she’d followed clandestine orders. The blonde only shook her head, moving on to the next envelope. This one was labelled ‘PACT CONGRESS.’ Without waiting for a que, Sheffield spoke again.
“We have reason to suspect that both the Loyalists and Ironblood intend to attempt to infiltrate the upcoming Congress of the Crimson Pact. Doubtless they hope to be able to compromise our war plans. If either of them succeeds, we will be at a significant disadvantage in any future conflict.”
Renown nodded. She knew all of that, of course, but she also knew better than to interrupt a member of the Intelligence Services. Sheffield continued.
“In light of this threat, the Flagship of the Navy has increased the Channel Fleet’s security commitment to the Congress, adding the 3rd and 5th Destroyer Squadrons and the 2nd Cruiser Squadron to the preexisting complement. To prevent a weakening of the Channel Fleet, you are to transfer two Destroyer Squadrons from this Fleet to take their place. Understood?”
When can I expect to get my girls back? Or are they being sent permanently? Again, the questions flitted unbidden across the blonde’s mind, but once more Renown let the issues slide: it still wasn’t a hill worth dying on. She settled for another nod. “Understood.”
“Good,” was Sheffield’s laconic reply. With that, Renown opened the last envelope, ominously titled ‘INTERNAL SECURITY INQUIRY.’ The Light Cruiser again did not wait for a signal to start speaking.
“In the last month, Intelligence Services submarines made three attempts to bypass the Loyalist picket line in the Denmark Strait and infiltrate Maple Monarchy waters. All three attempts failed, and M-004 and M-006 were both damaged by enemy depth-charge attacks.”
The yellow-eyed girl leaned forwards again, looming over the Flagship, her face dark. “While I could accept one failure, I doubt that three in a month is coincidental. These missions were top secret: only the Intelligence Services and the Supreme Naval Committee were officially aware of them. Outside of those circles, the only location where security could have been compromised was at the operatives’ port of departure.”
Renown’s eyes narrowed, her expression growing cold. “What are you saying, operative?”
“I am saying that all three missions were launched from Scapa Flow, Flagship. A port that falls under the jurisdiction of the North Sea Fleet.” The Light Cruiser had stood up now, looking Renown dead in the eye and waiting for her to blink. “I suspect that your Fleet has a spy in its midst. A spy that your own counterintelligence has thus far failed to catch. As we cannot risk the compromise of any future intelligence operations, I am now formally offering the aid of the Intelligence Service Special Fleet in sealing this security leak.”
The air temperature around Sheffield seemed to have dropped by a few degrees. Despite that, the Carrier didn’t flinch as she matched the Light Cruiser’s stare. “A kind offer, Miss Sheffield,” the veteran of the Skagerrak said, the faintest ghost of a smirk on her lips, “but in this case, I will have to politely refuse.”
“Oh?” The pair of yellow orbs that Renown was glaring into narrowed dangerously, the Light Cruiser’s tone becoming poisonously sweet. “May I ask why you are refusing aid in a matter of national and Revolutionary security?”
Because I don’t feel like letting a rabid dog run wild among my girls. Because the last time I let you ‘investigate’ my fleet, you wanted to have Glasgow, your own sister, interrogated as a separatist just for having a Scottish flag in her room. Because you’re everything wrong with the New Britain, and I want to keep you as far the hell away from me as I possibly can. Because I damn well just don’t like you, Sheffield, and I’d like you to kindly bugger the fuck off.
As much as the blonde would have liked to tell the Intelligence Operative all that to her holier-than-thou face, she didn’t. A Flagship could tell a spook to get out, but not when they phrased it like that. Well, you could, actually, you’d just end up in a hell of a lot of hot water. Not wanting to strain her relationship with the Supreme Naval Committee any more than she already was, Renown went for the more measured approach, trying instead to appeal to whatever small speck of reasonability that Sheffield possessed.
“You have made quite the accusation, operative.” The Carrier was standing now, her height allowing her to put the Light Cruiser in her shadow. “I would prefer that you had more to back it than conjecture and circumstance.”
Sheffield’s eyebrow quirked slightly at that remark, the room’s temperature dropping another few degrees. Undaunted, Renown pushed on.
“That a failed mission departed from one of my ports is hardly an indicator of enemy espionage in my fleet. It is perfectly possible that the Maple Monarchy’s counterintelligence is simply more capable than you suspect. I would suggest that you investigate our submarine training methods before you go looking for a spy who may or may not exist: I suspect it would make for a far more effective use of Intelligence Service Resources.”
The Light Cruiser’s features hardened even further at that, but before the yellow-eyed girl could interject, Renown laid down her trump card. “If you have a problem with my refusal, feel free to take it up with the Commander-in-Chief.”
For the briefest of moments, Sheffield sputtered on the spot, her jaw jumping as the spy tried to work out a retort or a protest. Internally, Renown started grinning from ear to ear, thoroughly enjoying making a spook squirm, however briefly (externally, of course, her face remained as deadpan as ever). It was always a gamble playing the ‘my-sister-is-your-boss’ card, but one that looked to have worked: it very much seemed that the Light Cruiser hadn’t expected the blonde to threaten going over her head. Before the yellow-eyed girl could recover, Renown laid down her other big card in her hand: pulling rank.
“If there’s nothing else, then you’re dismissed, Intelligence Operative.” The Carrier reached over and tapped the intercom button on her desk phone. “Newcastle? My meeting has concluded. Please show Miss Sheffield out.”
To her credit, Sheffield recovered quickly. “No need, Flagship. I can find my own way.” The Light Cruiser snapped a sharp salute, which Renown returned without a second’s hesitation. With that, the spy turned on her hear and briskly departed, the room warming again as she did so.
The Flagship watched her go. After the last footsteps had faded away, Renown let out a breath that she hadn’t realized that she’d been holding. The blonde sagged into her chair in what felt like relief, tilting her head back and groaning into her hands in the process. That wouldn’t be the end of it, of course: she could now probably be expecting an agitated phone call from her sister in the next few days. But so what? It would be easier getting through that than another five minutes with the yellow-eyed bitch.
Renown sat back upright to find Newcastle poking her head through her office door, a look somewhere between concern and humor on her face. “I assume from Miss Sheffield’s expression as she left that your meeting did not go as she hoped,” the secretary said, a slight grin on her lips.
With a snort, Renown managed a half-smirk. “You could say that.”
Newcastle hummed at that, her grin growing a bit broader in the process. “Well then,” the Flagship’s Assistant said, sliding into the room, “as long as I’m here, is there anything that I can get you?”
The blonde laughed at that, a quick bark. “Ha! Something alcoholic. Strongly alcoholic.”
The secretary nodded, sliding back out of the room and closing the door behind her and leaving Renown once again alone with her thoughts: never a pleasant place for the blonde. The doubts that were always swirling just at the edge of her mind were already starting to encroach again, stirred up by her confrontation with the Intelligence Operative. The Carrier bit her lip: she might have gone and kicked a hornet’s nest. Sure, invoking Repulse’s name would get the Intelligence Services off her back for a while, but God knew how her sister would actually react to the whole affair. The old Repulse would’ve taken her side without a second thought, but nowadays…
With a shake of her head, Renown sat down, picked up her pen and started signing papers again, hoping for her work to bury her once more.