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Kaiser Lane, Volume One: The Gathering Storm.

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The North Sea was burning.

 

The beautiful ocean, once clear and blue and calm, had become a sea of death and destruction. A storm of fire and metal raged without ceasing, the thunder of hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of guns sounding out over and over and over again in terrible rhythm, keeping the beat of the orchestra of battle. It was the soundtrack to an image of hell: As the setting sun painted the sky above in vivid reds, oranges and yellows, the waters below became a twisted and horrible mirror, covered with fiery wreckage and ruin; shattered rigging and broken hulls were strewn from horizon to horizon, chocking black fingers of smoke reaching skywards from the innumerable fires that burned across the whole sea.

 

If warfare was an art, then this was among its most dreadful masterpieces. Certainly, it had been composed by the greatest crafters in the trade, by those for whom war was their very purpose of existence. Blessed (or perhaps cursed) by the powers of the Wisdom Cubes embedded within them, imbuing them with the powers of the mightiest warships in the world, more than 250 shipgirls of Royal Navy and Ironblood had met in battle this day. They ranged from small and stealthy submarines to titanic Super-Dreadnoughts, built to be the ultimate weapons, trained and prepared for this moment from the very instant of their creation.

 

Few exemplified this more than the Royal Navy’s Knight-Commander, Warspite. If one had had to craft a perfect warrior of the high seas, to build a perfect living weapon, the end result would have been something very much like her: Unbreakably disciplined, incomparably strong, a prodigy of tactics and decisive and inspiring as a leader. Already she was a living legend for her feats at the Battle of Jutland, having briefly fought six of Ironblood’s strongest Dreadnoughts alone while afflicted a broken leg-and having admirably held her own in doing so.

 

Truly, Warspite was a master in the art of war. The rhythm of battle was ingrained in the Super Dreadnought’s very being, and her actions were nearly automatic, her movements guided far more by pure instinct than any conscious thought. Her Wisdom Cube hummed within her, its power flowing through Warspite’s body and rigging, the full might of a 32,000 ton, Queen Elizabeth-class battleship (including eight 15-inch guns, 24 Yarrow boilers producing 75,000 horsepower, and steel armor 13 inches thick) hers to wield.

 

And wield it she did. With a thunderous boom, yet another salvo sounded out from the guns mounted on Warspite’s rigging, the quartet of Mk 1 turrets no less effective in their Wisdom Cube-compressed form. Nearly eight tons of hardened metal and high explosives streaked across the darkening sky, guided by the range-finders and gun-directors integrated into the shipgirls’ mind. With a hellish shriek, the volley plunged into its target with deadly accuracy, the shells erupting into spectacular gouts of fire and smoke as they struck home. There were few things on the planet that could have withstood such a strike.

 

The shipgirls of Ironblood, unfortunately for Warspite, fell into the category of those ‘few things.’ In typical Capital Ship fashion, Warspite’s target, Bayern, didn’t seem all too fazed by about 16,000 pounds of high explosives going off in her face. With a furious roar, the Ironblood Super Dreadnought raised her own guns and returned the favor, Bayern’s eight rigging-mounted ‘Langer Max’ 15-inchers sending back an equally vicious salvo, aimed with the pinpoint accuracy that only a shipgirl could achieve. Without so much as thinking, Warspite raised her sword to guard, simultaneously twisting herself atop the water to brace against the inevitable impact.

 

Bayern’s shells dropped around Warspite like falling stars, eight resounding thunderclaps temporarily leaving the Royal Navy shipgirl deafened. She felt hellish flame burn against her skin, her hair and uniform being buffeted by the blast waves. Deep in her mind, Warspite sensed her Wisdom Cube briefly groaning in protest as it absorbed most of the energy from the salvo, shuddering as it soaked up forces that a normal human body couldn’t have possibly survived. Her rigging vibrated ominously as her Cube didn’t quite fully dispel the impact of Bayern’s attack, small hairline fractures manifesting themselves in the armored plates of the mechanical apparatus, clear signs of the beating that she had taken.

 

Much like Bayern, though, Warspite could hardly be bothered to let a few tons worth of HE shells being dropped practically on top of her head slow her down. Throbbing aches and stabbing pains were beginning to make themselves known throughout her body, but it didn’t take much for the Knight-Commander of the Royal Navy to ignore them, her natural discipline easily winning out against her body’s protests. Besides, she knew from experience that she could take it: she’d been pummeled far harder at Jutland than she had been so far today.

 

Without missing a beat, Warspite lobbed more shells of her own at the Ironblood battle line, a slight smile of satisfaction coming to her face as Bayern was surrounded by the waterspouts of her latest volley. Her grin quickly faded into a frustrated grimmace as it became apparent that this salvo had been just as ineffective as her previous ones, the opposing shipgirl emerging from the smoke and fire soaked from head to toe in seawater but otherwise no worse for wear. A moment later Warspite found herself bracketed by Bayern’s reply, being bathed once more in the hellfire of high explosives.

 

So it had gone for several hours. If Jutland had somehow failed to answer the question of a Dreadnought shipgirl’s toughness, then any remaining doubts had by now been long dispelled. It took more than a few hundred tons of worth of shells to take down a Capital Ship. Over the course of the battle, the two Battle Lines had exchanged innumerable salvos with each other, each one more than capable of ripping a lesser vessel into scrap metal, but the Dreadnoughts and Super Dreadnoughts of both fleets fought on just as strong as before. Destroyers and torpedo boats lay wrecked by the dozen, the only evidence of their existence the shattered remains of their riggings and a few oil trails; a score’s worth of cruisers had joined them in the cold, dark depths, blasted into burning debris; the Dreadnoughts had barely slowed down. The mutual slaughter continued.

 

Undoubtedly, those that had first unlocked the mysteries of the Wisdom Cubes could never have conceived that those that they built to save the world would so soon be fighting each other.

Who could have dreamed, when near every nation on earth had stood together against the Sirens, that the guns of their saviors would soon be turned against those that had so recently stood beside them? Who could have imagined, in the darkest days of the Siren Wars, when the whole of the world had seemed to be on the brink of destruction, that little more than a decade after humanity reclaimed the major waterways of the world they would fall back into their old ways? Who could have foreseen that the apparent victory of Azur Lane against the Sirens would only sow the seeds of further suffering, as old rivalries and feuds were reignited by arguments over the division of the spoils?

 

Perhaps it was inevitable. With their common enemy seemingly gone, what was there to hold the alliance together? Human nature, after all, is unchanging, tainted by greed, pride and anger, and so soon does it forget the costs of such sins. Drunken on their victory, the great powers looked to forge this new, post-Siren world in their own images, all seeking to rise from the ashes of the Siren Wars as the shapers and masters of the new order.

 

Was it any surprise, really, that Ironblood, heirs to the legacies of Prussia and the German Empire both, would begin to see itself as the rightful masters of Europe? That, having withstood what could only be described as the wrath of the gods, they would believe themselves to be chosen by destiny to remake Europa and the world in their image? That they, who had emerged stronger than ever from the hell of the Siren Wars, would challenge the weakened old order, eager to assert themselves on the world stage?

 

Was it any surprise, really, that the Royal Navy, Iris State and Northern Parliament, inheritors of the British, French and Russian Empires, eager to reestablish their mauled domains, would see this as a rising threat, especially once Ironblood began encroaching on the Low Countries and the Balkans? The French had already lost one war to the Germans; the British had striven for centuries to make sure that no one power (excepting themselves) ever became a hegemon on the continent; the Russians wished to maintain their position as guardian of the Slavic peoples of eastern Europa. The Siren Wars had changed none of that; if anything, they had only enflamed the fires of patriotism across the world, igniting a new wave of national pride in every country that had survived the Siren’s onslaught. As Ironblood’s influence continued to expand, as they continued to test the limits of their neighbor’s patience, conflict only became ever more inevitable.

 

When the final schism came, it was to the surprise of no one. Azur Lane, the military organization, survived; Azur Lane, the dream of a united world, died an ignominious death, killed not on the battlefield but by a few pen strokes in high office. Ironblood was cast out for its perceived crimes. Other withdrawals soon followed: Eagle Union, alone on its own continent thousands of miles away from where the storm clouds of war were gathering, refused to embroil itself in a distant and foreign war. They turned inwards into isolation, eager to rebuild their own lands and confident in their own strength. The Sakura Empire, away on the far side of the planet, followed suit, far more concerned with building their own new order in East Asia than in any European feud. Azur Lane, rather than the united defenders of all mankind, was left as just one more military alliance like any other in history, with no ideals further than realpolitik and force of arms.

 

The cost of this division? Uncountable millions of dead in the mud of Flanders, the steppes of Russia, the sands of Arabia and the rocky mountains of the Alps. Four years of hell had ripped Europa (so recently rebuilt in the wake of the Siren Wars) asunder. Mechanized, unfeeling slaughter reigned supreme across the continent, the ‘Great’ War bogging down into a horrific battle of attrition. Whole nations started to break under the strain: Northern Parliament collapsed, its Revolution rapidly warping into a brutal civil war; the faith of Iris Orthodoxy became more shaken with each passing day, whispers of mutiny and rebellion growing louder and louder with each failed offensive; Ironblood starved, the Royal Navy blockade slowly turning food shortages into outright famine.

 

Such despair breeds desperation. In Ironblood, desperation manifested into aggression. Throughout the early years of the war, the Ironblood Navy, the glorious Hochseeflotte, had adopted a defensive posture, the Admiralty unwilling to risk their girls (the products of more than two decades of blood, sweat and tears, the very prides of the nation) in open battle against a numerically far superior force. U-Boats and other light forces had done the brunt of the fighting in those days, waging a naval guerilla campaign and weakening their foe through indirect combat, with a good measure of success.

 

But it was by now clear that such measures were not enough. Not by raiding alone could the Royal Navy be defeated. With the nation at the breaking point, there was no other option: No more could the Hochseeflotte afford to safely sit in the protected waters of the Jade Estuary, waiting for the Army (by now stretched to its absolute limit, despite its victories) to complete its conquests. It would have to seek battle. And not just any battle either: This was not to be a glorified raid like Dogger Bank, or a massive but ultimately indecisive clash like Jutland. There could be no more doubts: the time for a final, climatic clash for dominance of the seas had come.

For Ironblood to be victorious, nay, for it to survive, the power of the Royal Navy had to be broken. The blockade was tightening around the Kaiser’s Empire like a noose, steadily strangling its exhausted people to death: the previous year’s “Turnip Winter” had killed thousands through malnutrition and illness, the citizenry desperately resorting to eating animal feed to survive. Unrest spread through the country like a virus, hunger ever more threatening to break the nation’s will. The Ironblood fleet had to have victory: the nation could not survive a defeat. This was to be the final settling of accounts between Royal Navy and Ironblood, the fate of both their empires at stake. This was to be the battle to decide the war, one way or another.

 

The challenge would be monumental. By raw numbers, the Hochseeflotte would be at a massive disadvantage, the balance of power laying firmly in the enemy’s favor, especially in terms of Capital Ships: The Royal Navy fielded more Dreadnoughts, and especially more Super Dreadnoughts (the four Bayern-class Ironblood shipgirls worthy of the title vastly outmatched by Royal Navy’s ten in the Queen Elizabeth and Revenge-classes). Even factoring in Ironblood’s Battlecruisers (not advisable, as the Royal Navy fielded twice as many ships of that type as the Hochseeflotte), the Capital Ship advantage lay in Her Majesty’s favor by a ratio of roughly 3:2, if not more.

 

All other factors being neutral, the outcome of such a battle wouldn’t have ever been in doubt: Royal Navy, superior in both numbers and firepower, would have simply hammered away at their foes until they either fled or were destroyed. And so it fell to the Flagship of Ironblood, the Dreadnought Friedrich der Grosse, to make sure that all other factor’s weren’t neutral, to do everything in her power to increase her comrade’s, her family’s, chances of victory.

 

It is said that necessity and desperation yield invention and brilliance. Such was the case here: Friedrich composed a beautiful symphony of destruction, using every trick available to her, from decrypting Royal Navy communication to laying multiple ambushes using nearly every U-Boat available to carrying out airborne reconnaissance by Zeppelin and seaplanes. Now, if she could conduct her orchestra of death with the same skill with which she had written it, then perhaps (just perhaps) victory would be within her reach.

 

So far, she has been successful.

 

A low growl escaped from Warspite’s lips as her Wisdom again hummed in protest, angrily vibrating as it first absorbed and then safely released most of the energy from Bayern’s latest attack. A quick check with said Cube told her that she’d only taken yet more superficial damage, but that wasn’t the cause of her concern and frustration. The battle had been raging for hours: by now, Royal Navy should have gained the upper hand.

 

Instead, the two sides had been locked in a stalemate, both fleets deadlocked in a life-and-death, kill-or-be-killed struggle at roughly equal strength. That by itself was cause for alarm: even assuming that Ironblood’s warrior were an even match in terms of skill, Royal Navy still should have held an advantage, reflecting their numerical superiority. That they were facing their adversaries at rough parity of strength showed that something, or several somethings, had already gone wrong.

 

That was the source of Warspite’s worries: Ironblood had been playing all of its cards right so far. The Royal Navy had been on the backfoot from the moment that the battle had started, its advantages in strength and numbers slowly being whittled down by a mix of ingenious tricks and bad luck. U-Boats had been harassing them almost from the moment that they had left harbor; bad weather was wreaking havoc with their gunnery; the entirety of the 1st and 2nd Battlecruiser Squadrons, meant to be the eyes of the fleet, had dropped out of contact hours ago, leaving the main body of the fleet effectively blind to the enemy’s position and strength until battle had already been joined. Their foes were fighting dirty: Every asymmetric tactic that Ironblood had access to, they were using.

 

“Torpedoes!”

 

Case in point. That cry, courtesy of her old classmate Barham, shook the Queen’s Right Hand out of her thoughts. A quick look for herself confirmed Barham’s warning: a volley of tin fish were indeed streaking towards the Royal Battle Line, invisible until it was almost too late. Not a moment too soon, Warspite heeled hard to port, intent on present the smallest possible target profiles and using the wash from her propellers to throw the underwater attack off course. Behind her, most of the Royal Knights were forced to perform the same evasive maneuver, the Royal Navy’s powerful formation forced to break apart yet again.

 

With their targets temporarily scattering and unable to bring a large portion of their firepower to bear, the Ironblood Capital Ships wasted no time in joining in the assault: a thunderous cacophony of booms sounded out from their Battle Line as they tried to press their brief advantage. With sounds like railway cars being thrown across the sky, dozens of shells arced across the heavens and into the Royal Navy girls, vast plumes of fire and seawater sprouting into existence wherever they landed.

 

Warspite felt her Wisdom Cube creaking yet again as it prevented her from being burned to ash or shredded by shrapnel. More cracks appeared in her rigging, more aches shot through her body. With another growl of frustration and pain, the Knight-Commander fired back as well as she could. Caught in the middle of evading the torpedo attack, though, Warspite wasn’t able to give a full or accurate return volley, the half-salvo she fired falling far wide of her intended target.

 

“All ships, back into formation, now! Reform the Battle Line!”

 

Her orders given, Warspite turned back toward starboard, again trying to bring all her guns to bear. She had yet to do so for more than a few minutes at a time, the repeated Ironblood torpedo attacks by both submarines and small ships forcing the Royal Navy Capital Ships into evasive maneuvers again and again and again. Scores of destroyers and U-Boats had paid the price for their bravery with their lives, but they prevented the Royal Battle Line from exploiting their big-gun advantages and succeeded in giving their own Dreadnoughts and Super Dreadnoughts desperately needed breathing room. It had been annoying: now it was getting dangerous.

 

Cursing under her breath, the Knight Commander spared a quick glance back at the rest of the Royal Knights. They looked to a girl as bad as Warspite herself felt, being beaten, bruised and bloody. All of her classmates, her fellow veterans of Jutland, had added to their scar collections today: Barham’s left eye was a bloody mess, and she was leaning heavily on the shaft of her warhammer; Valiant’s right arm was dangling uselessly besides her, a massive piece of shrapnel buried in her shoulder; Malaya’s rigging was smoking dangerously, much of her uniform in flames. Further back in the Battle Line, the five Revenge-class Sisters didn’t look much better; nor did the Iron Dukes, the Orions or indeed any of the remaining Royal Navy shipgirls, the hours of battle having taken a brutal toll on their bodies.

 

To the Royal Navy’s credit, the Ironblood girls didn’t look all that much better. The two fleets darkly mirrored each other, every wound inflicted matched by a wound sustained. The gathering darkness cast their injuries into an all the more terrible light, lit as they were by only by the small fires dotting their riggings, their expressions of grim determination and glares of anger and frustration shrouded in dancing shadows. The setting sun painted everything in burning oranges and yellows, reinforcing the imagery of hell.

 

The setting sun…

 

“The sun’s going down…”

 

“Your Majesty?”

 

The statement had come from Warspite’s liege, The Queen of the Royal Navy herself, Her Majesty the Battleship Queen Elizabeth. Warspite’s oldest, closest friend bore fewer scars than her classmates, having missed Jutland undergoing routine maintenance, and had spent today making up for lost time: eager for the glory of sinking a Flagship, the shipgirls of Ironblood had not hesitated to focus their fire on the Queen. Their efforts were so far in vain, but certainly not for lack of trying: it had not taken long for Her Majesty to become as bloodied and battered as her Knights, for her dress to become partially burned away, her rigging to be cracked in several places, her crown to be knocked askew atop the birds’ nest that her usually well-fashioned hair had been blasted into.

 

Despite that, her head was still held high, her posture impeccable as always. Elizabeth’s usual short-tempered and haughty persona had melted away the moment that the first cannon had been fired: gone was the childish girl that would throw temper tantrums over a tea party, being replaced by the experienced and accomplished veteran of the Dardanelles. She seemed to almost ooze an aura of leadership at times like these, inspiring her subordinates towards victory, encouraging them to shoot sharper and stand taller.

 

The Queen was not one to lead from the rear. Elizabeth had not hesitated to lend her own formidable skills and strength to the battle: she stood second in the Battle Line, and would have stood first if not for Warspite’s insistence otherwise. Her gun barrels were as hot and worn as any of her classmates, and her keen tactical mind had proven a match for Friedrich der Grosse’s, effectively countering every attack, feint and maneuver that the Ironblood flagship had so far threw at her, preserving the stalemate where a lesser commander would have seen the tide of battle turn against them.

 

Her Majesty had now decided to voice her some of worries to her most trusted aide. Taking only a moment to hurl another volley of her own at the Ironblood formation, Elizabeth turned towards Warspite, a pensive look on her face.

 

“We’re running out of daylight, Warspite. At most we have another half-hour before dark, and I’m unsure whether or not we should risk a night battle. You have more field experience: I’d love your perspective on the matter.”

 

Warspite’s response was rudely preempted by yet another salvo from Bayern, more plumes of cold seawater washing over her. After sending the Ironblood Dreadnought an eight-gun reminder to remember her manners, the Knight-Commander was able to give her reply.

 

“It would certainly be risky, your Majesty. We’d be exposing ourselves to torpedoes, chancing friendly fire…Fighting in the dark is a lottery, one where a much more can go wrong than right.”

 

The pair were again interrupted, this time by Bayern’s little (but no less powerful) sister Baden, who chose that particular moment to try and drop a volley of shells on top of Her Majesty’s head. Warspite tensed for a moment as the Queen briefly disappeared from sight, but her fears were unfounded: a moment later, Elizabeth politely told Baden to butt out of the conversation, courtesy of a few tons of High Explosives, and continued to speak to her Right Hand as if nothing had happened.

 

“And Ironblood is better prepared for a night battle, are they not? They’d have that in their favor as well.”

 

“Aye, your Majesty. We only really started considering how to engage in nighttime combat in the last few years, after Jutland; they’ve been training for it since the war started. They’ve prepared themselves for such a possibility far more completely than we have, as much as it pains me to admit it.”

 

Elizabeth hummed at that, stroking her chin in contemplation and mulling over the possibilities. At the same time, an unpleasant feeling rose up in Warspite’s gut. It was a feeling of…incompleteness. Of disappointment. Logically, the Knight-Commander knew that it was in the Royal Navy’s best interests to break contact: a chaotic night battle, with all its elements of chance, would far favor the weaker Ironblood fleet. To undertake such an action would be to potentially play straight into the enemy’s hands, to court utter disaster. Better and wiser to take caution and preserve their strength for when conditions were more favorable. That would be the reasonable reading of the situation. The prudent one.

 

But that wasn’t a plan that Warspite’s Warrior Spirit could agree with. To let the enemy slip out of their grasp when they had them outnumbered and almost overwhelmingly outgunned…it reeked of failure. Of defeat, if not of cowardice. A stalemate, between two such unevenly matched forces, would be a disaster in terms of morale for the Royal Navy, supposedly the absolutely invincible masters of the seas. The idea that the Ironblood could match them in a more-or-less fair fight would badly erode the fleet’s confidence in itself, and could easily be painted by their enemies as a victory for themselves.

 

Such had been what had happened after Jutland: in tactical terms, the battle had been a completely indecisive stalemate, and in fact could easily be counted as a strategic victory for the Royal Navy (owing to their superior size and shipbuilding facilities). It had not seemed that way. Ironblood had reached their home waters first, and by the time that the Royal Fleet had steamed back into port the Hochseeflotte had spent already spent nearly two days declaring to anyone that would listen that they had wiped out the legacy of Trafalgar. The newspapers from the continent had displayed headlines using words like Triumph, Annihilation and Extinction, with the Kaiser himself declaring that “The British fleet was beaten!” And once the idea that the Royal Navy had failed in battlehad taken root in the public consciousness, the idea was a hard one to dislodge.

 

The Dreadnought Iron Duke, then Flagship of the Royal Navy, had been taken to task by the admiralty, the press and the public for the perceived failure to overpower and destroy an (on paper) vastly inferior enemy: the criticism had become so bad that the Admiralty had been shortly afterwards forced to ‘promote’ her to a desk job in London, the duty of Flagship falling to Queen Elizabeth. Further odium had been directed at the rest of the Royal Navy: arriving into Rosyth and Scapa Flow the day after the battle, the shipgirls had been greeted by hissing and jeers from the civilian dock workers, who were convinced that the fleet had been soundly defeated.

 

Warspite’s resolve hardened at those memories. The Knight-Commander had no anger for those that she was tasked to protect: she was just as disappointed in herself as they were. As the people of the Isles expected better of them than stalemates, so too did the shipgirls of Royal Navy expect better of themselves. They weren’t supposed to run from a fight: they were supposed to make their enemies run. Warspite’s Wisdom Cube howled at her for battle, to defeat the foe before her and to settle the score of Jutland. This time, it insisted, the enemy could not be allowed to slip away in the night. The chance for a glorious victory sat before them, if only they could reach out and seize it. And now, in the gathering darkness of the Skagerrak, Warspite said as much to her liege.

 

“If I may speak freely, Your Majesty?”

 

“You may, old friend.”

 

“I believe that it would be an error to break contact, even once night falls. We still possess large advantages in both firepower and numbers, and given the number of torpedo attacks that we’ve faced I have to image that their submarines and attack boats are running low on ammunition. If we press on, I think that they’ll run out of tricks to throw at us.”

 

Her Majesty briefly paused before responding, weighing both her Right Hand’s thoughts and her own, as well as sending the Ironblood Battle Line more ‘polite reminders’ to stay out of a private conversation. After hurling another such reminder at Baden and Bayern, the Queen spoke.

 

“Are you confident in that assessment, Warspite?”

 

“Aye, Your Majesty, I am. We can’t let them slip away from us again. Morale is already low after Jutland: if they escape and tell the world that they’ve defeated us again, I’m not sure that it would recover. We are the superior fleet: we need to show that to them and to ourselves. If we do, I doubt that Ironblood be able to muster the will to challenge us again.”

 

A slight frown came across Elizabeth’s face. “Even so…we’d be playing to their strengths, not ours. You said it yourself, Warspite: they’re more prepared for a night battle than we are.”

 

The Knight-Commander grimly nodded. “True enough. But we’ve made strides since Jutland: we’re nowhere near as hopeless in the dark as we used to be. They’re still better at it, but I don’t believe that they’ll be better enough.”

 

Turning her gaze back towards their foes, Warspite’s cannons boomed again, another eight tons of high explosives spewing forth across the sky. “Your will is my command either way, Your Majesty. But I will say that this is our best chance to defeat Ironblood once and for all.”

 

Another long pause, punctuated by the omnipresent thunder of guns. Other sounds mingled with the constant booms: war cries; screams of rage, frustration and despair; the wails of the damaged and the sinking. The butcher’s bill had been high today indeed. How many girls had been sent into the icy depths? How many old friends and comrades would they never see again? If they broke contact, if they fled the field, how many sacrifices would they be rendering pointless?

 

Evidently, the Queen willed that none of her subjects who had fallen today would do so in vain. the Flagship of the Royal Navy turned to face her Right Hand, a confident smile on her face.

 

“Alright. I trust your judgement, my old friend. We’ll see this through to the end.” With a quick nod, Her Majesty turned to the rest of the Royal Knights, standing herself as tall as she could, petite chest jutting out proudly, and gave her orders:

 

“Warrior of the Royal Navy! Adjust headings three points to starboard! Fight for glory! Show these pretenders our might!”

 

The Queen commanded: the Knights obeyed. With a ragged battle cry, nearly a third of a million tons of steel, carrying 80 15-inch guns, changed course towards the enemy, ten Super Dreadnoughts acting almost as one. Before them sailed flotillas of destroyers and light cruisers, the Royal Navy’s screening forces mauled but still defiant and dangerous; behind them nearly two dozen other, older Dreadnoughts followed on, ready and willing to lend their own power to the struggle. More than a hundred Royal shipgirls charged as one into the gathering darkness, filled with courage, pride and anger, a blood red sun setting behind them…

 

And then Warspite felt pitch darkness fall all around her.

 

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t feel. She couldn’t breathe. The battle surrounding her vanished, replaced with a pure black nothingness that stretched infinitely in all directions, a void as cold and dark as the deepest, blackest depths of the ocean. It was constricting her, crushing her, drowning her, consuming her. Warspite’s Wisdom Cube was silent, her rigging was gone, her strength leaving her as she struggled pathetically against the endless oblivion. After a moment that lasted for an eternity, Warspite heard an all-to-familiar voice, screaming in a whisper:

 

“YOU WERE WRONG!”

 

Warspite tried to close her eyes, tried to avoid facing who she knew had made that accusation. She squirmed in the grasp of the shadows around her, fear flooding through her body like icewater filling her hull. Warspite tried to speak again, tried to form words out of the dread, guilt and panic overriding her mind, but before she could force her tongue to move she felt a sharp blow to her gut. Agonizing pain shot through her, and her eyes were forced open, and Warspite was made to face her greatest shame and failure.

 

YOU DID THIS TO ME!”

 

The shipgirl before her glared was a being from Warspite’s every nightmare. Their rigging was shattered, nearly all of it blasted into torn and twisted tendrils of warped wreckage, the metal plates that had once composed it ripped into ghastly pieces. What was left was rusted and falling apart, all ragged edges and broken shards, or was burning and melted, host to unextinguishable fires blazing forever in hellish oranges and reds.

 

Yet none of rigging’s damaged compared to what had become of the shipgirl who bore it. Warspite stared into the face of death itself: They were monstrous thing to behold, built of rotten, bloated flesh, once fair skin turned grey and green or black by decay or by fire. Exposed bones ripped through the tattered remains of skin and clothing, and large chunks of her were outright gone, torn away by battle damage or scavengers of the deep.

 

Worst of all was their face. The jaw hung by a few threads of shredded skin and rotting muscle, exposing broken, sharpened teeth and a blackened, burned tongue. The top right quarter of the skull was shattered, exposing the festering remains of the brain within. One eye was gone entirely, leaving only a bloodied socket. The other gazed back at Warspite with furious, burning hatred, the sclera having turned red with blood, black veins crisscrossing the once-blue orb.

 

And yet Warspite still recognized the shipgirl before her; she knew that this was her oldest, closest friend, the one who had trusted her above all others.

 

THIS WAS ALL YOUR FAULT!”

 

Warspite tried to speak, to scream, to apologize, to beg for mercy, but no words would escape her mouth. She was choking, suffocating, the darkness all around her squeezing in from every side. She was being dragged down, down, down, further and further and further into the abyss, and there was nothing she could do, no way that she could fight, it was getting colder and colder and colder and darker and darker and darker and something was besides her, something in the depths, and it reached out for her, took hold of her and then-

 

And then Warspite woke up.

 

More specifically, she woke up screaming. The former Knight-Commander of the Royal Navy thrashed in all directions, lashing out blindly at anything within reach, her mind still within her nightmare. There was someone standing over her, reaching out to calm her, trying to call out to her, but for a long moment Warspite was unable to hear them. Her tongue was finally loosened, and out from her mouth flowed a torrent of blubbering apologies and pleas for mercy.

 

“-ajesty! Wake up!”

 

“No! NO! NO NO NO NO NO! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I-“

 

“-ur Majesty! Calm yourself, please!”

 

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! I’m s-“

 

“YOUR MAJESTY!”

 

Finally, Warspite’s mind caught up to what her senses were telling her, reality managing to reassert itself over her night terrors. The Fast Battleship blinked several times, dispelling the last vestiges of the nightmare, her vision clearing and coming into focus. She was in her bedchambers, the reddish light of a clear morning streaming in through the windows. The figures standing before her, rather than the demonic shipgirl of her dream, were instead a pair of well-figured light cruisers wearing the kit of the Royal Knights: Dido and Sirius, Warspite’s personal bodyguards.

 

The sisters were on edge, both of their swords drawn and their riggings deployed. Most likely (given Warspite’s screaming), the pair had charged into the room expecting to find their charge in the midst of being assassinated. Dido stood by Warspite’s bedside, an expression of clear worry across her face, while her more stoic younger sister checked the room for assailants, guns swiveling in all directions, blade held at the ready.

 

With a deep sigh, Warspite clasped her face in her hands and fell back into her bed, groaning, a muffled sound of disappointment leaking from her mouth. For a few minutes, she simply lay back on her covers, breathing as deeply and evenly as she could, trying (and somewhat managing) to force herself to calm down. A feeling of shame welled up in Warspite’s gut: She was supposed to be better than this. It wasn’t proper for someone of her standing to scream themselves awake, haunted by memories nearing two decades old. She was supposed to set an example for her subjects, not be reduced to a shivering wreck by her nightmares like a newly-commissioned destroyer.

 

“Your Majesty?”

 

With a final deep breath, Warspite forced herself to sit back upright, rubbing the final traces of sleep from her eyes. In answer to Dido’s inquiry, the Fast Battleship turned to her retainer, fixing the elder Knight with what she hoped was a look of reassurance and calm.

 

“I’m alright. It was just a nightmare.”

 

“Are yo-“

 

“I’m fine, Dido. There’s nothing to worry about.”

 

The Light Cruiser didn’t seem satisfied with that, the look of concern still written across her features, but after a moment Dido decided against questioning her liege’s statement. With that, the two Knights stood down, their riggings dissolving into clouds of blueish-white cubes before vanishing entirely, the sisters sheathing their blades in the same moment. Warspite glanced at her bedside clock: 0730 hours, give or take a few minutes. She’d slept in.

 

Shaking her head, the Fast Battleship swung her legs over the side of her bed, briefly stretching her shoulders and sides before forcing herself to her feet. Time, past time, to start the day: there was a High Council debriefing scheduled for 0930 hours, and Warspite didn’t feel like having to rush through her breakfast. First thing’s first: getting clothes on. It wouldn’t do for her to be going about in her nightdress.

 

Warspite usually went through her morning ritual by herself, despite her rank, but today she let her retainers do most of the work in making her presentable. As Dido and Sirius went through the process of dressing her in her uniform, styling her hair into its signature pair of dog-ear-like tufts and applying a thin layer of makeup, Warspite found her mind wandering back to her dream. It had been months since she had had one like it; she had dared to think that maybe she was finally moving past her greatest mistake. Evidently not.

 

The Disaster of the Skagerrak. Her nightmares always took her back to it. Always. The dark shadow it cast over the former Knight-Commander was inescapable and all consuming. Those nights that she screamed herself awake, mercifully few in number nowadays, were the nights that she found herself back in those accursed waters, forced to again bear witness to her greatest failure. They shook her, always. Warspite never found her dreams haunted by the specters of her other battles and defeats, the horror of Jutland and disgrace of the Exile never managing to plague her slumber. But Skagerrak…

 

The fear of death and the shame of defeat did not have such solid holds on her: Warspite had come close, damn close, to sinking at Jutland, but the idea of her own death hardly scared her anymore; the blame for the Exile (a shame that cast nearly as long a shadow over the Royal Navy as Skagerrak did) could be laid at the feet of Repulse and the other mutineers, who had turned crisis into catastrophe despite Warspite’s best efforts. Neither event had ever caused her to wake up in a cold sweat.

 

No, it was not fear or shame that plagued Warspite so. It was guilt. Jutland was a source of mortal terror; the exile, it could be argued, wasn’t her fault, at least not in full. But there was no one else to blame for the Disaster of the Skagerrak. Her judgement had been trusted, and disaster had followed. Her pride, her wrath, her arrogance…they were the causes of the Royal Navy’s worst defeat. She had wanted the glory of a crushing victory. She had wanted another Trafalgar.

 

She had gotten one, but not for Royal Navy.

 

With a sigh, the Fast Battleship shook her head, trying to dispel such thoughts from her mind. She couldn’t lose herself in her self-pity: she had duties to perform, burdens to bear. Warspite closed her eyes and took a deep breath in, centering herself, then a deep breath out, releasing what tension she could, trying to banish her dark thoughts. It didn’t work perfectly, of course: the doubts that had been plaguing her for the last two decades nipped at the back of her mind, ready to surge forwards at the slightest provocation. But Warspite had long ago learned to keep such things caged away. She had had to.

 

When Warspite opened her eyes, Dido and Sirius were putting the finishing touches on her appearance, straightening various odds and ends of her uniform and brushing the last stray strands of her hair into place. Only her badges of office were left: a moment later, Warspite felt the familiar weight of her sword upon her back, a slight pinching sensation as the scabbard’s strap was tightened across her chest. And now…

 

The two light cruisers knelt before their liege, presenting to her a pair of regally decorated artifacts: Dido a crown, and Sirius a scepter. Warspite took another deep, calming breath, fighting down the memories that threatened to well up within her at the sight of them, of tea parties, late nights studying together, of training and temper tantrums and celebrations of promotions and decorations. And of course, of disaster. When Warspite opened her eyes, for the briefest of moments she saw a different face reflected back at her in the side of the crown, a face from far happier days. A moment later it disappeared, replaced by that of a worn-out old soldier: wrinkled, scarred skin, frayed hair and haunted eyes.

 

Slowly, reluctantly, Warspite bowed her head and allowed the senior of her retainers to place the crown upon her brow. It was a replica, of course, as was the scepter: the originals had been lost at the Disaster of the Skagerrak. Both of them had been made to Warspite’s specifications, not to her predecessors’. Despite that, even after all these years, the crown didn’t feel right for her to wear: its weight was still alien, still wrong, as if she were a child playing dress-up in her parent’s clothes. The scepter was similar, its shaft not quite fitting in Warspite’s hand, like she was holding on to it for someone else.

 

God, how she wished that that were true.

 

Get a grip, Warspite the Grand Old Lady mentally scolded herself. You need to be stronger than this. There are too many people relying on you for you to be this weak. With that, the Fast Battleship tried to harden her resolve, tried to place a stony mask of confidence over her face. Nodding for her retainers to follow, the Queen of the Royal Navy in Exile stepped out from her chambers, forcing herself to try and leave her old demons behind.

 

And to get ready to face new ones.

Chapter Text

As Warspite and her retainers quietly made their way across the base and towards the mess hall for breakfast, the morning’s nightmare lingered over the Queen of the Royal Navy in Exile like a dark cloud. Not that this was particularly unusual for the former Knight-Commander: the hellish version of her predecessor and fallen closest friend haunted Warspite far more than she dared admit to anyone, even in private, and few were the days that passed without the Flagship wondering if Elizabeth was looking down on her in shame.

By necessity, Warspite had learned how to push such ghosts aside without too much difficulty (her sense of duty being one of her few traits that had survived Skagerrak intact), but it was not so this morning. The Flagship’s nightmare had dredged up memories that she much preferred keeping buried, and now the Fast Battleship could hardly look around her without seeing something that stood as a testament to how far the Royal Navy had fallen. All around were a thousand tiny reminders of Warspite’s various failings, a thousand little things that worked to stir up the Queen’s ghosts.

Most of these reminders stemmed from the simple fact that, despite being the Queen of the Royal Navy, Warspite’s held Court in a Maple Monarchy Naval Base. For more than a decade now the Fleet had languished in Exile, banished from Great Britain by the traitors that they had fought side-by-side with during the Great War. It was yet another dark mark on Warspite’s reign: not only had the Royal Navy lost its pride, its fighting spirit and its self-confidence under her watch…they had lost their home.

Warspite had been built at Devonport, trained at Rosyth and spent her formative years being stationed variably at either Scapa Flow or London: in short, she had been British, through and through. The Royal Navy Bases of Great Britain, with all their little quirks and idiosyncrasies, had been her home, and in many ways Warspite still saw them as such. Despite the vicious war against Ironblood that she had been fighting, the years she had spent there had been in many ways the best years of the then-Knight-Comamnder’s life. Warspite had fought her first true battles there, made her first true friends there, had first truly been alive there, able to embrace her humanity and realize what, exactly, it had been that she had been fighting for.

But now such places were long lost, kept far beyond the Queen’s reach by treason and betrayal. When the Revolution had swept through Britain in the wake of their defeat in the Great War (and when Repulse’s accompanying mutiny had torn Royal Navy apart), Warspite had been forced to flee like a craven across the Atlantic and take refuge in the Elder Dominion. It was her second greatest failure, behind only Skagerrak in shame. And unlike Skagerrak (which had become something of a taboo to mention in the Flagship’s presence), it was impossible to avoid reminders of the Exile.

The simple fact that Warspite was stationed at His Majesty’s Canadian Dockyard-Halifax instead of, say, London, made sure of that. Regardless of the Maple Monarchy’s of its status as the eldest of the former British Empire’s Dominions, what had formerly been Canada was not easily confused for Britain. The Maple Monarchy, despite (or perhaps because of) its heritage as a former British Colony, was rather proud of being a noticeably distinct entity; the differences between a Royal Navy and a Royal Canadian Navy base (subtle as they often were) couldn’t be avoided, and each one of them (no matter how small) served to rouse Warspite’s ghosts. She meant no insult to the Canadians, but quite frankly the Flagship found the best port in the Maple Monarchy severely lacking.

This was not to say that Halifax was a bad base. In fact, by military and historical standards it was actually a rather impressive one. Halifax had always been one of the Royal Navy’s better facilities, especially among those in the Dominions: Acting as the main Royal Navy headquarters in North America dating back to the middle of the 18th Century, the base had served the British Empire well through the Seven Years War, the American and French Revolutions and the War of 1812, gradually transforming from a colonial backwater into the core of the Royal Navy’s North American presence in the process.

It was the Siren Wars that would secure Halifax’s place in Royal Navy history. The Sirens had laid brutal siege to the British Isles, laying waste to much of its industry and agriculture in the process. With their factories and farms either destroyed or under constant threat of attack, the survival of the people of Britain had become almost completely reliant on food and war material safely produced in the vast interiors of Canada or America and then shipped to the Old World. An endless stream of transport ships and their escorts had had to fight their way across the Atlantic, taking horrific losses in the process.

Halifax’s strategic location just north of the main Atlantic shipping lane between the Americas and Europe had become the lynchpin of this system: the base was both the last major port of call that any eastbound convoy could take shelter in before the brutal fight across the North Atlantic and the first relatively safe port that any westbound ships could possibly hope to reach on the return trip. By necessity, Halifax’s facilities had been massively expanded and improved during the war, becoming one of the most important repair yards and supply stations in the entire British Empire.

And, of course, one of the best defended. Given that the fall of Halifax could very well have severed Great Britain’s lifeline, the Royal Navy had spared no expense in turning the port into a fortress. The harbor was naturally defensible, with a small entrance guarded by multiple islands that funneled all traffic into a handful of narrow channels. The Admiralty had made full use of these geographic features: soon enough, those islands were crawling with long-barreled heavy artillery pieces and the channels were choked by comprehensive minefields.

Those defenses were soon pushed to their absolute limits: the Sirens had not hesitated in the slightest to challenge fortifications that would have ripped any human fleet to shreds, knowing full well that Halifax’s loss would leave any and all transatlantic traffic dangerously exposed and almost certainly assure the fall of the British Isles. The ensuing Siege had been lengthy and brutal: the otherworldly invaders had launched assault after assault after assault against the fortress city, like endless waves breaking against a rocky shore. Dozens upon dozens of shipwrecks soon littered the sea floor around the harbor, and tens of thousands of lives had been lost defending it.

But Halifax had held out, and (more importantly to the Empire) the convoys had continued. In large part due to resources shipped via what was soon being called ‘the Canadian New York’, Great Britain had survived the onslaught of the Sirens, and eventually the mysteries of the Wisdom Cubes had been unlocked and the emergence of shipgirls had tipped the scales in humanity’s favor. When the Sirens were finally seemingly driven away from the world’s major waterways, Halifax could stand proud as one of the legendary stories of the war: only a small handful of other cities had withstood so long or so intense a siege.

The grueling and ferocious campaign had been for Canada what the Siege of New York had been for the United States (and later its successor, Eagle Union): the place where all the setbacks and sacrifices of what would later become Azur Lane had finally borne fruit, where the raging Siren tide had finally begun to be turned back, and where the new, post-Siren Wars national identity of their peoples had been shaped. Halifax was where the concept of a Canadian (as opposed to a Nova Scotian, Quebecois or Albertan) had started to take shape; Leaders forged in its fires would be the ones to lead what was now the Maple Dominion into the new era; the day that the siege was finally broken had become a national day of remembrance.

Despite this, the city would not stay in the spotlight of world events for long. Halifax’s duties initially remained largely the same in the post-Siren Wars era, the fortress city continuing to serve well as the Royal Navy’s North American home base, communications hub, supply station, repair yard and defensive lynchpin, but the global situation was rapidly changing. With the Sirens apparently in full retreat, the British Empire was free to turn its attention to more human matters: Namely, the collapse of the old European balance of powers and the emergence of the German Empire (rebranded as Ironblood) as the continent’s new hegemon.

Consequently, Halifax’s importance (and indeed that of the entire Maple Dominion) to the Empire faded somewhat, the Royal Navy’s attention being diverted closer to home. Even before the Great War had begun, resources and personnel had been diverted away from the Dominions and back to the North Sea and the Channel, reflecting the shift in priorities that placed Ironblood as the new imminent threat to the Empire. With their continental rival increasingly flexing their authority in regions that were practically on Britain’s doorstep, lands like the Maple Dominion, ANZAC, Good Hope and the Crown Jewel found themselves being put on the backburner, largely left to their own devices and reliant on their own resources. With emphasis placed on the likes of London, Rosyth and Scapa Flow, ports such as Cape Town, Sydney, Bombay and of course Halifax were relegated once more to secondary status, their young domestic navies not quite up to the task of operating independently of the Royal Navy.

Once the war broke out, Halifax’s new existence as little more than a supply depot and transport hub became set in stone. The new foe lacked the omnipresence that the Sirens had had, leaving the Dominions firmly on the periphery of events. Aside from a few isolated raiders like the cruiser Emden and the small colonial forces like the one commanded by the original Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the naval fronts stayed far away from the Empire’s overseas territories: Ironblood’s Capital Ships were confined to the North Sea until after Skagerrak, and its submarines were focused closer to the Isles (lest they draw Eagle Union into the War).

Even without foes to directly fight, Halifax and the personnel stationed there (human and shipgirl alike) had done their duties faithfully and unwaveringly, doing well to uphold the legacy forged in the Siren Wars. But still the city’s luster faded: Logisticians, often as important as field commanders (if not more so), rarely win glory, and the same is true for supply depots when compared to battlefields. There was to be no Battle of Halifax in the Great War (unless one counted the accidental explosion of the transport ship Mont Blanc, which managed to destroy as much of the city in a matter of seconds than the Sirens had managed to do in a few years), the city instead simply and quietly serving in its new reduced role. With no honors won, Halifax was relegated to backwater status in the minds of the Admiralty, important only as a transport hub.

That view had not changed with the end of the War; if anything, it had become even more entrenched. Even after more than a decade of Exile, more than a decade spent living and working in the city as if it were her home, the view that Halifax was a poor substitute for London or Scapa Flow was hard for Warspite and other British Exiles to shake. In large part this was due to the old prejudice of the homeland versus the colonies: Canada (depending on how you defined it) had an impressive history going back several centuries, but all its accomplishments amounted to footnotes when compared to the history of Britain (which could claim a legacy dating back to Rome), and so naturally the people of the mother country tended to look down on their ‘children’.

In far larger part this was due to the nature of their arrival in Halifax: to the Flagship, and indeed to almost everyone that had fled from Great Britain during the Revolution, the city (and the Maple Dominion as a whole) had always been meant to be a temporary lodging, not a permanent residence. The far majority of them had tried to avoid setting down lasting roots in anticipation of the day that the British Isles were reclaimed from the Revolutionary traitors, and they thus refused to think of their current locale as being “home”; instead, the Dominion was seen only as a stepping-stone to reclaim the lost glory of the Empire, as a crossroads or rest stop on the way to the true destination.

The Exiles had brought with them various touches of home, of course, ranging from statues and paintings to British-style gardens and renamed buildings and streets. But these were ultimately halfhearted gestures, more in the vein of bittersweet reminders of what had been lost than any genuine attempt to reshape the newly-reorganized Maple Monarchy into a new Great Britain. Nobody wanted to build a replacement London almost 3000 miles away from the original (not while the chance of reclaiming said original existed at least: doing so would have been to admit that the British Isles were well and truly lost), and so no one ever truly tried to do so.

All this was to say that Halifax remained Halifax; more to the point, it remained not Scapa Flow, not Rosyth, and most especially not London. And the reminders of this fact were seemingly everywhere: Simply walking across the base to get breakfast, Warspite passed by a dozen Naval Emblems, all of them bearing the stylized red leaf of the Maple Monarchy instead of the Royal Navy’s lion; she strode down grey and quiet roads named for Canadian Prime Ministers rather than colorful and noisy ones named for English Kings or Queens; on the way she was saluted by two of the River-class destroyer sisters, Restigouche and Qu’Appelle, both of whom addressed Her Majesty in the Quebecois accent that was so different from Warspite’s British inflections.

Arriving at the Mess Hall, the reminders continued. In and of themselves, the choices for breakfast weren’t bad ones, per say: nothing wrong with eggs, ham and pancakes, but the side of poutine, the lack of a hot drink besides coffee and the fact that everything seemed to have been drowned in Maple Syrup all served to highlight the meal’s distinctly Canadian flair. Warspite ate the not-quite British breakfast in silence, sitting outside in the not-quite British weather and not-quite enjoying the panoramic view of the harbor that she would never and could never call home.

Finishing her breakfast, Warspite then headed towards the Headquarters building for debriefing of the Fleet’s High Court (and yet more reminders of how badly her reign had gone). During Queen Elizabeth’s rule, such a meeting would have been held (weather permitting) in the Royal Gardens, appreciating the sunshine, the birds chirping and the beautiful flowers. The Maid Corps would have been present to provide tea and sweets, and the various members of the Court would have probably spent more time making small talk than discussing operations.

In fact, Elizabeth’s debriefings had more often than not resembled tea parties more than any kind of military meeting. The reason had been simple: to provide Her Majesty and her Court with a way to encourage the ideals of elegance and grace throughout the Royal Navy. The idea had been to instill senses of beauty and humanity in Elizabeth’s subjects, to stop them from being consumed by the sorrow and misery of the war around them, to give them something more to fight for than a flag and an oath. Warspite’s predecessor had made such ideals the core of her rule, trying to bring some measure of civility to a world that had rapidly been going mad, being utterly determined to make sure that the shipgirls of Royal Navy didn’t forget why they was fighting.

How things had changed. Different indeed was the Court of Queen Warspite: Gone was the tea, the sweets and indeed the entire Maid Corps, the Maple Monarchy’s far more limited budget causing them all to be written off as frivolous wastes of precious resources. Gone were the Royal Gardens, succeeded by an armored bunker buried in 50 feet of solid bedrock below the Headquarters building, as dark and silent as a tomb. And gone were the ideals of elegance, grace, beauty and civility, fallen with the Queen who had so embodied them.

The Court’s members, too, had changed, the old guard of Royal Navy having been a) lost at the Disaster of the Skagerrak like Lion and, of course, Her Majesty had been; b) deemed outdated after the war and either gone into retirement or been mothballed, a la Iron Duke; c) scattered across the Dominions in a desperate effort to hold together the crumbling Empire, as was the case with Barham, Valiant and Malaya; or d) had joined Repulse in stabbing them in the back during the Revolution. This left the new High Court dominated by new faces: in fact, Warspite was the only holdover from her predecessor’s reign, being the lone shipgirl among them that hadn’t been constructed post-war.

“All rise in the presence of Her Majesty, the Fast Battleship Warspite, Queen of the Royal Navy by the blessing of King-Emperor Edward VIII of the British Empire.”

The High Court of the Royal Navy In Exile stood at attention around a circular table as Warspite entered the dimly lit conference room a half-moment after Dido’s announcement, heads bowed. Various stray papers were strewn across the room, either stacked on the table or pinned to various boards and maps on the walls. There were five other shipgirls present in all (excluding Warspite’s retainers): two Fast Battleships, a Dreadnought, a Destroyer and a Submarine, each one representing a different operations branch within the Royal Navy.

To Warspite’s immediate right was Nelson, the plate-armor-clad Dreadnought towering over everyone else in the room. She stood as a living monument to the Royal Navy’s new ideals: The wills that had shaped Nelson’s Wisdom Cube reflected the Royal Navy’s post-war bitterness, resentment and desire for revenge, the wish to reclaim past glories that had culminated in the construction of one of the strongest naval vessels ever built. Nelson had been specifically conceived as a Warrior to surpass Warspite herself, to be the first in the new generation of Knights of the Royal Navy that would one day avenge Skagerrak and return the rule of the waves to Britannia.

No expense had been spared in her design or construction. In terms of raw power, the Knight-Commander of Royal Navy In Exile put all but a handful of other shipgirls in the world to shame: compared to a Queen Elizabeth or Revenge-class Battleship, Nelson’s displacement was nearly 50% heavier, partially due to her hull being some 200 feet longer but mainly due to the sheer amount of extra armor that she had been given. At the same time, her vastly improved propulsion systems allowed her to maintain the same 23-knot speeds as the older vessels. Nelson’s firepower, too, was a massive leap forwards, the previously standard eight 15-inch guns having been traded in for nine 18-inchers, firing heavier shells at higher velocities.

All this came at a cost, however (a cost perhaps even larger than the monstrous amount of wealth required to build and maintain her hull). Where the Royal Navy In Exile proclaimed Nelson as their greatest warrior, the old Royal Navy would have called her a callous brute: her Wisdom Cube forged largely by anger and thoughts of vengeance, unfettered and hard-to-direct rage was constantly boiling just beneath the Dreadnought’s skin, leaving the Knight-Commander often short tempered, irritable and seemingly looking for a fight. While Nelson was an excellent battlefield leader (she was Knight-Commander for a reason, after all), all the traits that served her well in combat left her prickly and isolated off it.

Besides Nelson, the Destroyer Amazon seemed outright puny by comparison. Where Nelson’s Wisdom Cube had been shaped by the desire to avenge Skagerrak, Amazon’s Wisdom Cube had been shaped by the hope to learn from the mistakes that had caused the Disaster and to make sure that it never happened again. Amazon had been built as a destroyer for the future, her design drawing from everything that the Royal Navy had learned from the war, and her personality matched this desire: always was Amazon striving for the wisdom and knowledge that had eluded her predecessors that dark night in the Skagerrak.

The screen ship was meant to spend her time teaching the lessons she learned to newly commissioned shipgirls: Formerly the Headmistress of the Royal London Shipgirl Academy, she served the same role in Exile, giving lectures on everything from tactics to naval history to gunnery at the Royal Shipgirl Academy-Halifax. It was Amazon’s responsibility to make sure that the girls entering Royal Navy In Exile would not make the same errors as those that had come before.

If only she hadn’t developed the same personality type as Nelson. To be sure, Amazon’s irritability came from a place of genuine concern (namely, an overwhelming desire to make sure that her lessons stuck with her students), but it still wasn’t exactly a pleasure to deal with on a regular basis. Unfortunately, the Headmistress found herself lacking in opportunities to improve her social skills, much like the Knight-Commander (the latter probably spending more time going on Siren hunting expeditions in the Labrador Sea or Baffin Bay than was strictly healthy).

In Amazon’s case, rather than running around the Artic looking for things to shoot or bludgeon it was a case of spending too much time locked away in dark laboratories. This was down to a shortage of students: with Maple Monarchy’s limited resources sorely handicapping their ability to build new shipgirls (a problem that was further exaggerated by the loss of a substantial portion of the Empire’s reserve of Wisdom Cubes during the Exile), Amazon spent the far majority of her time working on various research projects rather than teaching. The Headmistress relentlessly chased after breakthroughs in everything from Combat Theory to reverse engineering Siren weaponry, anything that might give the Exiles a technological or doctrinal edge, becoming the de facto head of the Royal Navy’s R&D Department in the process. Unfortunately, most of her projects (promising as some of them were) had yet to bear fruit, a fact that left Amazon with a constant air of frustration about her.

Directly across from the Queen, blending in with the shadows behind her a bit too much for comfort, was Upholder, the submarine that acted as the Royal Spymaster. Ironically for a spy, the submarine stood out among the other shipgirls present, standing in sharp contrast to the surface ships around her: She was even smaller than Amazon, and unlike the military uniforms worn by the rest of the High Court Upholder was clothed only in a ragged old cloak, the hood pulled down over her face until only her mouth was visible.

Warspite had never liked submarines all that much. Her experiences with them had been quite limited (the old Royal Navy hadn’t invested many resources into subs, initially viewing them the kind of warriors that only inferior fleets would turn to) and overwhelmingly negative (it had been U-Boat attacks, after all, that had been one of the largest factors that had turned Skagerrak into the Disaster), and this had left the Queen with a firm distaste for undersea warfare.

But the Great War had shown just how effect such methods could, and nowadays the Royal Navy In Exile needed every advantage that it could get its hands on. Cheap, easy to make and capable of inflicting disproportionate damage, more and more of the Fleet’s resources had started to pour into building up a substantial undersea arm. Lacking their own submarine experience, the Royal Navy In Exile was forced to settle for trying to imitate the impressions given by Ironblood U-Boats during the War. Said U-Boats had gained a fearsome reputation indeed, striking without warning and slipping away before anyone could catch them, then coming back to do it again. They were known as silent assassins, acting as complimentary daggers to the broadswords of the Dreadnoughts, and were the best friends of an inferior Navy.

Her Wisdom Cube shaped by this desire to mimic the success of their foe’s submarines, Upholder’s personality wound up being something of a pastiche of Royal Navy’s beliefs (read: stereotypes) about the demeanors of  Ironblood U-Boats: The Submarine was secretive to a fault, usually behaving like a living shadow and with something akin to an obsession with figuring out how to sink bigger shipgirls. She rarely spoke, almost never showed her full face and knew a frightening amount about just about everyone (while remaining an almost total mystery herself).

Upholder was the kind of person you forgot about unless they were right in front of you, and she was all the more dangerous for it: In battle, the Spymaster was ruthless, cunning and fought dirty. More than once, Warspite had received complaints that the Submarine had outright cheated in combat exercises, Upholder only avoiding punishment because nobody could uncover any proof of the alleged misdeed. In short, she was creepy, probably more deadly than Nelson, and a damn good Head of Intelligence.

To Upholder’s right sat Warspite’s Steward, the stoic and determined Fast Battleship King Edward VIII. While Warspite was the one that set policy and gave orders, it was Edward that made sure that the Queen’s will was carried out. And Edward was quite good at her job: The younger shipgirl was best described as being nearly compulsively well-organized and almost ruthlessly efficient. This was yet another product of the modern Royal Navy possessing a fraction of their pre-Exile resources: Edward and her older sister were the only modern Capital Ships that the Maple Monarchy had so far scrounged up enough funding and material to build, ultimately being a pair of Budget Battleships (in fact, under older classification systems they would have been considered Battlecruisers, and indeed their designs were in effect little more than modernized and economized versions of the older Admiral-class) that traded raw strength for maximized efficiency.

Edward’s Wisdom Cube (and in consequence, her personality) had been shaped by largely by this desire to do more with less. Of course, this had the effect of leaving her with a disposition that was about as interesting as drying paint when she was on duty (ironic, given her namesake’s tendency to be a driving wheel in the Maple Monarchy’s high-society gossip machine), but in many ways Edward’s apparent lack of major personality traits beyond “dutiful stoicism” was far more of a blessing than a curse.

The Fleet Quartermaster was meant to be the silent workhorse of the Navy, and the job was best suited to someone who simply put their head down and worked-a description that fit Edward (who routinely buried herself in mountains of paperwork for hours on end in order to turn shortages into surpluses) to a tee. The hyper-diligent head of Logistics was the shipgirl that squeezed every cent of the Navy’s budget for all it was worth, that made sure the Maple Monarchy’s worn down and overstretched facilities and shipgirls were being kept in fighting shape. Without her, the Royal Navy In Exile probably would have completely fallen apart.

Edward’s older sister King George V was the last shipgirl in the room, rounding out the High Court. George’s christening and commissioning, carried out by her human namesake King-Emperor George V (in one of his last public acts before his health had seriously begun to deteriorate) had been a watershed moment for the Royal Navy In Exile, and indeed the whole British Empire: her status as first modern Capital Ship built in the Maple Monarchy made her into not only a point of national and imperial pride, but also a first step in truly showing the world that the Royal Navy could still carry on, and that the dream of Britannia ruling the waves was far from dead and gone.

The KGV-class sisters were perfect compliments to each other with regards to leading the tattered remnants of Royal Navy into the future. The younger strengthened the Fleet’s ‘body’ while the elder healed its ‘soul’: Where Edward worked to resolve the Fleet’s myriad logistical and material problems, George was the one that was leading the charge to rebuild Royal Navy’s spirit and self-image, dragging it out of nearly two decades of despair and self-pity.

George held the perfect job to fulfill this task: In her capacity as Warspite’s Chancellor, the Fast Battleship was the Fleet’s Head Diplomat, acted as both its liaison to the Maple Monarchy’s human government and its go-to representative when meeting with other navies, becoming the public face of the Navy in the process. As the designated Pride of the Royal Navy In Exile, she was something more: a shining beacon to which the national spirit could rally, the symbol of hope for the Empire’s future, a living monument to the Royal Navy’s continued determination and resilience.

In both roles, George served spectacularly. The Chancellor possessed an outright magnetic personality, able to encourage respect and admiration (if not outright loyalty) almost by her mere presence. And she was always putting action to her appearances: wherever the Royal Navy In Exile ran into trouble, be it her sister’s never-ending struggle with the Fleet’s bureaucracy or Nelson’s duels with the Sirens up in the Arctic, there could be found King George V, inspiring her comrades to victory. She practically radiated the kind of charisma that had been missing from the Fleet throughout Warspite’s reign and carried with her a rekindled version of the fighting spirit that the Royal Navy had lost at Skagerrak.

Many throughout the both the Navy and the Empire at large whispered not-so-quietly that George was far Queenlier than Queen Warspite had ever been. In fact, it was generally assumed among the higher circles of the Fleet (and Maple Monarchy society in general) that the younger, more energetic and more charismatic (and, ahem, “better equipped”) George was being deliberately groomed as Warspite’s successor. This was in fact an idea with a great deal of public support: many of those that remembered the days before the Exile found George a nostalgic harkening back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and certainly found her a more inspiring figure than Warspite (who had never truly taken to the role of Queen, rarely appeared publicly and was deeply stained by the dual shames of Skagerrak and the Exile).

The rumors that Warspite was soon to step down and let George take the reins had gained significant steam after the death of King-Emperor George V. But there was no abdication looming for the Grand Old Lady: despite the part of her that wished to be parted from her Crown of Thorns, Warspite’s pride and honor (or what she still had of them, anyways) prevented her from daring to hand her burdens over to another. The logic was simple and absolute: It was her fault that Elizabeth’s legacy had become so tarnished, and so it was her duty to see things made right. The Grand Old Lady flatly refused to leave behind her mistakes for another to clean up. In the Flagship’s eyes, only by personally leading the Fleet back to glory could she finally excise her demons: Royal Navy’s shame was her shame, and its redemption would be her redemption.

It would be a long and winding road to that redemption, with steps both large and small. Today was to be a small step, the simple matter of leading the High Court’s debriefing (although the subject of the meeting was a far larger matter). Nodding in acknowledgement of her Court Officials, the Queen of the Royal Navy In Exile signaled for the other shipgirls to be seated, a gesture that was quickly followed by the scraping of chairs and the taking of seats. Remaining standing herself, Warspite then formally opened the meeting.

“Good morning to you all, and thank you for attending this morning’s debriefing. I hereby declare this session of the High Court of Royal Navy to be opened. Dido, please note the date, time and those present in the minutes.”

“Aye, Your Majesty.”

“No point beating around the bush. I suspect that you all know why this Council was summoned, but for the sake of the official record: the purpose of this meeting is to discuss the effects on the Royal Navy of the ongoing crisis in Eagle Union.”

Picking up a pointer from the table, Warspite strode over to the large map of North America that hung from one of the bunker’s walls. With a sharp thwack, the Queen slapped the pointer against the Maple Monarchy’s larger southern neighbor.

“As you all know, the Union’s economy has been in shambles for more than a decade now, ever since the crash in international trade brought about by our Exile. Since then, the Americans have been plagued by strikes, riots, impotent government, ecological disasters…and the situation is now becoming critical.”

“With the collapse of the Berlin Stock Market three months ago,” the Flagship spoke on, “whatever progress they’d made towards recovery has been completely wiped out. President Hoover’s weak leadership has only made matters worse: the people are becoming increasingly disillusioned with mainstream politics and are shifting their support to Socialist and/or Populist parties.”

“The American legislature is currently debating the Garner-Wagner Bill, a massive economic relief program,” Warspite continued, “but given the unpopularity of the current Administration and stiff opposition from radicals that claim that it isn’t going far enough, its uncertain whether or not it will pass.”

“The political atmosphere in the Union is dangerously similar to how things were just before the Revolution broke out back home,” the Queen said, pausing for half a moment to force her old regrets back down. “His Majesty’s government is fearful that if the Relief Bill fails, it will become the straw that breaks the camels’ back and opens the door to a Revolution. And I don’t need to tell any of you how disastrous the Americans going Red would be for us.”

“As such,” concluded the Grand Old Lady, moving back to her seat, “the King-Emperor has commanded that we begin drawing up Defense Plans in the event of Eagle Union’s implosion. He’s expecting to know the current status of the Navy by next week: I do hope that you’ve all completed your preliminary reports.”

Another round of affirmative nods, although Nelson had raised her hand, the look on her face clearly indicating that a thought had struck her. Warspite gestured for her Knight-Commander to speak, and the Dreadnought wasted no time voicing her thoughts.

“Not that I don’t love a good fight, but if the Yanks decide to go off the deep end wouldn’t it be more the Army’s territory than ours? It’s not like I can bombard, say, Chicago. Shouldn’t we be spending our time focusing on Repulse’s lot, or even the Sirens?”

“A good question,” Warspite acknowledged. “I asked the same. The answer I was given was that the Army won’t have a good enough fix on its capabilities to draw up any plans until this autumn’s elections, what with Quebec kicking up such a fuss about conscription. That leaves us as the Empire’s main combat arm until at least October. If something kicks off before then, we best be ready for it, and right now the Union looks most likely to be where the fire starts.”

Nelson gave a huff at that explanation, but the Flagship was decently sure it was one of her more positive huffs. Keeping her attention on the Dreadnought, it was the Queen’s turn to ask a question.

“As you’ve decided to open the discussion, Knight-Commander, I assume that you’ve completed your preliminaries?”

“Yes I have, Your Majesty,” Nelson replied, a bit of bite slipping into her voice at the implication that she hadn’t come to the briefing prepared. Mercifully, the Dreadnought decided not to make anything out of it, pulling several files from the bag at her side and passing them to Warspite without further comment. As the Flagship flicked through the assembled training scores, exercise plans and after-action reports, the Knight-Commander stood and strode over to the wall map, taking up the pointer the Warspite had set down.

“We’re about as ready for a fight as we can be. I’ve given our girls as much field experience as I can: every squadron in the Atlantic Fleet has been sent up north to have a go at the Sirens at least twice in the last couple years. We’ve done well enough at it; You’ll notice in the reports that everyone’s managed to come back in one piece. But we all know that the Sirens aren’t exactly a top-tier match anymore. Whether we’ll be up to par in a real fight is anyone’s guess.”

Which was Nelson-speak for ‘The Fleet is as well-trained as possible under peacetime conditions.’ Thwacking Baffin Island on the map, the Dreadnought continued.

“The Sirens have been pretty quiet for a while now: they’ve mostly pulled back into the Hudson and Baffin Bays. As they’re not breathing down our necks, I’ve pulled our pickets and patrol routes back southwards. On Your Majesty’s orders, the full Atlantic Fleet can now be assembled at Halifax within 48 hours. Valiant’s already got our whole Pacific Fleet standing by at Vancouver. If the Union goes to hell in a handbasket, we’ll be ready to move.”

“Very good, Knight-Commander,” Warspite acknowledged. “Keep drilling the girls and stay on alert. Whatever happens, we cannot be caught with our pants down.”

“Aye Your Majesty.” With a quick bow, the Dreadnought returned to her seat. The Queen now turned to her Steward. “Edward. What is the status of our material reserves? How long could the fleet stay on combat footing?”

“Unfortunately, Your Majesty, not for very long.” The Fast Battleship was frowning deeply as she passed another bundle of files to the Grand Old Lady: this time the papers were requisitions for ammunition, fuel, and spare parts, and they painted a far grimmer picture than Nelson’s reports had. “The largest problem that we’ll have is oil. On hand, we have enough fuel for approximately six weeks of routine operations like patrolling and scouting, and that’s an optimistic estimate. A full-scale combat sortie would likely deplete our reserves by at least half.”

Nelson cursed under her breath, and Warspite had to stop herself from doing the same. Edward, for her part, still had more bad news to share, and share it she did.

“On top of that, we produce very little fuel domestically. The overwhelming majority of our oil is currently being imported from Eagle Union, roughly 80% of it. Any large-scale unrest will disrupt that supply line, to say nothing of an outright Revolution.”

 “I wish I could say that I have better news regarding our other resources, but…” Sighing, the Steward continued. “We simply don’t have the military infrastructure required for any kind of sustained campaign. With our current stockpiles, what we have available is…frighteningly small.”

Another resigned sigh escaped Edward’s lips, and then the Fast Battleship began listing off what the Royal Navy In Exile had to fight a war with. “40 torpedoes per submarine, enough for roughly five or six total sorties, and about half that many for destroyers and cruisers. 1000 15-inch shells per Fast Battleship, enough for three, maybe four operations and 300 18-inch shells per Dreadnought, barely enough for one. Eight fighters and twelve bombers each for Hermes and Argus, and no replacements for them once they’re gone. It’s the same for secondary armaments, replacement parts…I’m doing what I can, but the Monarchy’s economy just isn’t strong enough to give us the resources we need for a full-scale war.”

Warspite frowned deeply at that, as did the rest of the High Court. She knew, of course, about the Empire’s resource problems, but to have them presented so starkly…With a low growl, the Queen shook her head and forced herself to calm down. Economics was something beyond their control. It wasn’t Edwards fault, so no point getting mad about it. Still grimacing, Warspite nodded to her steward, hoping that her face wasn’t one of disappointment.

“Thank you, Edward. That’s…about what I expected it would be like. For what it’s worth, His Majesty’s Government does have economic plans in the works, or at least so I’m told. For now… I know logistics is a thankless job, and that you aren’t a miracle worker, but still: do what you can.”

“Understood, Your Majesty.”

With that, Warspite turned again, now focusing her attention on her Chancellor. “George, what can the rest of the Empire send us?”

“Not very much, Your Majesty,” the elder KGV sister replied, her face set in a grim look. “The economies of the other Dominions are even weaker than our own, and what they can produce is barely enough to maintain their own forces. In fact, in the last few weeks Hood has sent me multiple requests for ammunition and oil in light of security concerns regarding the ANZAC elections. Barham has done the same regarding increased Boer and Syndicalist activity in Good Hope.”

“So we’re more likely to wind up sending material to them then they are to send anything to us,” Edward groused, the Quartermaster hunching forwards and burying her head in her hands. “Fantastic.”

Her grimace deepening even further, Warspite questioned George further. “What of our other allies?”

“I’ve spoken to Richelieu and Littorio,” George answered, shaking her head. “Both have assured me that they’ll send what support they can in case the Union goes up in flames, but it still won’t amount to much. Vichya Commune and Genova Republic are, naturally, their primary concerns. Any redeployment to support us will be noticed by the Crimson Pact, and our allies are fearful that any weakening of their own defenses will be give the Revolutionaries a reason to try and finish what they started. If the Pact decides to start anything in the Med, Iris and Sardegna will need everything and everyone they can get their hands on.”

“So what?” That was Nelson cutting in. “We’re gonna be on our own if this thing kicks off?”

“Not necessarily,” George replied. “We’ll still have the Union.”

Warspite’s eyebrow quirked at that remark. “Will we? Elaborate, Chancellor.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” the Fast Battleship replied. “I believe we should be focused on planning an intervention, not an open war. I sincerely doubt that any sort of Revolution or other uprising would go unopposed; Ours and our allies’ certainly didn’t. If a Revolution starts, an Opposition will inevitably form, and It is my belief that our best option is to align ourselves to and coordinate with that Opposition, much like Ironblood did in Northern Parliament. If we only have to worry about backing an American ‘White’ movement, then our odds of success will be significantly better.”

The Flagship acknowledged that idea with a thoughtful hum. The Maple Monarchy (and consequently, the Royal Navy In Exile) lacked the strength for a direct confrontation with Eagle Union, and everybody knew that; that was why an American Red Revolution was such a threat. When thinking in those terms, the Exiles’ situation was dire indeed. But just helping whatever Counterrevolutionaries emerged suppress a Red Uprising was a far different story. In that case, the Fleet would only have to act in a supporting role instead of a frontline one, a far more feasible task for the resource-strapped Exiles. However…

“How would we go about doing that?” That was Amazon, speaking up for the first time. “I don’t like the idea of waiting until after the war breaks out to figure out who’s on our side. This isn’t something we can afford to go in blind on. We’d gain the greatest advantage if we could start drawing up joint plans before the fighting starts.”

“Our relations with the Americans aren’t the best at the moment either,” Warspite mused, her grimace returning. “They’ve been calling for us to repay the loans that we owe them from the Great War for a while now, despite them knowing that we won’t be able to pay off our debts until the Isles are reclaimed. There’s been talk of an embargo if we don’t comply.”

“Absolutely right,” George agreed. “Which is why I believe that now would be the perfect time for me to pay a visit to Miss Pennsylvania. Before we draw up any kind of plans, we need to know where Eagle Union High Command and its girls stand, and I can’t get that kind of information here.”

The Chancellor now turned to the Flagship. “I’ve already taken the liberty of speaking with Ottawa: with your permission, Your Majesty, I’ll be departing in a month’s time as part of the diplomatic detail being sent to try and sort out this debt repayment business. While I’m down there, I’ll be able to ascertain the mood of the Union Fleet and figure out who our allies are. I need only your blessing.”

Warspite nodded. “You have it. Do whatever you can to get Pennsylvania and the rest of the Union Fleet on our side. Good luck, Chancellor.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Nelson grunted, her frown betraying just what she thought of their southern neighbors. Never one to hold back a comment, the Knight-Commander decided that now was a good time for a remark. “Let’s just hope that they don’t have a Repulse running around anywhere, eh?”

Yet another sour look crossed Warspite’s face at the mention of the traitorous ex-Knight. Again shoving down her feelings, the Flagship now turned to her Spymaster. “Upholder. What do you have?”

“The Chancellor has requested that I refrain from commencing any operations regarding the active infiltration of Eagle Union until she has completed her visit,” the Submarine spoke curtly, nodding towards George, “in order to prevent any diplomatic incidents. I have agreed to this, and Intelligence is currently limiting itself to establishing passive networks, which as of this time are not yet fully in place. I am waiting on further word from my agents.”

“So, what? You’ve been sitting on your aft the last few weeks?” Nelson again. Upholder turned towards the Dreadnought, despite the Spymaster’s expression hidden below her hood.

“No. I have not.” When the Submarine spoke, despite maintaining the same neutral tone, the temperature in the room seemed to drop a few degrees. “In conjunction with my colleagues in Iris State and Sardegna Kingdom, I have been drawing plans and preparing my agents to infiltrate the upcoming Congress of the Crimson Pact.”

The Spymaster didn’t stop speaking as she slid a stack of papers across the table, each one of them stamped TOP SECRET in red ink. “We know for a fact that Repulse, Gascogne and Giulio Cesare are all attending, no doubt in order to discuss their fleet’s plans regarding the ongoing world economic crisis. If our infiltration succeeds, we will become privy to those plans.”

Still speaking in a blunt monotone, Upholder continued. “I have also been working to continue our ongoing intelligence campaign against the Red Navy. While enemy counterintelligence has so far prevented us from establishing a viable active network in London, I am able to report that our cell in Rosyth now has safe and consistent access to all information regarding the Red Navy’s North Sea Fleet. In addition, my agents in said fleet have reported the existence of several potential dissidents among the Red Navy girls there. My best agent is currently working to encourage sympathy to our cause among them.”

“Finally, I have carried out several counterintelligence operations of my own. In the past month we have successfully deterred three attempts by Red Navy submarines to slip through the Denmark Strait and infiltrate our waters.” The Spymaster leaned forward across the table towards the Knight-Commander, and the room temperature dropped another degree. “As for me personally, I have swept this entire building for bugs and wires thrice daily for the last two weeks in anticipation of this briefing.”   

Then Upholder quietly leaned back into her chair, her point made. Nelson huffed, pouted and growled at being called out, but that was the norm for her.  Awkward silence reigned for a long moment, before Warspite finally addressed her Spymaster.

“Continue as you see fit, Upholder.” The Submarine’s only response was a quick nod, not that the Flagship had been expecting anything else. With that, Warspite turned towards the only Court member yet to give their report.

“Amazon, does the Research Department have anything for us?”

“Nothing major, Your Majesty,” the Destroyer answered, passing the Queen one final batch of files. “We have several projects awaiting field testing, but none of them are exactly groundbreaking. A few design tweaks for torpedoes, anti-air guns and the like, some doctrinal theories I’d like Hermes or Argus to test in our next set of combat exercises. Our research on Radio Detection is proving quite promising, but we’re playing second fiddle to the Air Force and Army on that one-any breakthroughs in that field will be going to them first.”

Warspite nodded slowly, stroking her chin in thought. “What about Project Odysseus?”

Amazon shook her head. “Still at a dead end.”

Edward rolled her eyes in a very Nelsonesque fashion at that remark, briefly glaring at the Head of R&D. “Your Majesty, if I may speak freely?” A quick nod from the Flagship, and the Steward continued, a rare look of outright exasperation on her face.

“Odysseus has been at a dead end for how many years now? Three? Five? In that time the research budget alone has consumed the equivalent of building George and I a new sister, and that’s not even factoring in material costs. If Eagle Union collapses, we won’t be able to afford that kind of money sink. Personally, I don’t think that we can afford it now: The resources for Odysseus would be far more effectively spent on conventional arms.”

Amazon scowled at the Quartermaster’s comments, doing her best impression of Nelson’s best huff. “While that may be true, Lady Edward, you out of all of us should know how sorely our combat ability has been hampered since the Exile. Our foes do not have our handicaps: Whatever else you can say about Repulse, she has built the Red Navy into a force that has us badly outmatched. We may not like to admit it, but as things are we cannot hope to defeat the Crimson Pact in a conventional fight.”

The tension in the room had distinctly heightened, and Warspite had to resist the urge to bury her head in her hands. The feud between the Research Head and the Steward should have long been settled, the Queen have had made her opinions on this matter clear years ago, yet here they were, ready to have the same old argument all over again.

The Royal Navy’s research into Siren weapons technology had been a point of contention between the Research and Logistics Divisions almost since its inception, and a particularly nasty one ever since Edward had taken office. Amazon saw Siren tech as their best (if not only) option for leveling the playing field against the Crimson Pact, and frequently demanded increased funding in order to see it through to completion; Edward, seeing a bottomless pit of waste from which anything practical had yet to return, had repeatedly recommended the entire Project be scrapped.

Most of the High Court tended to side with Edward on the matter: Nelson’s pride caused her to turn her nose up at anything she viewed as dishonorable in combat (which of course included alien superweapons), while George was more worried about the impression that using Siren tech would give their religiously anti-Siren allies in Taranto and especially Algiers. Once, before the Exile, before Skagerrak, Warspite would have agreed with them wholeheartedly. Now, though…

“Amazon is right,” Warspite spoke, ignoring the twinge of shame she felt in her gut. “As you have both said, our ability to fight an open war is sorely lacking. We need every advantage that we can get our hands on, and that means that we cannot afford to ignore Odysseus’ potential. The Project will continue.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Amazon said, the Research Head looking remarkably smug to have the Queen’s backing. For her part Edward gave the Flagship a look that clearly communicated how much she disagreed with the decision (a look that was mirrored on the faces of George and Nelson), but the Steward bowed in deference to her superior regardless, letting the issue drop.

“Does anyone have anything else to report?” Warspite asked, looking around at the rest of her Court. The only responses were a few murmured ‘no’s’ and five shakes of the head. Nodding, the Grand Old Lady wrapped up the meeting.

“Alright then. You all have your orders. We’ll begin drawing up our Defense Plans once George returns from Eagle Union and gives us a fuller picture of what’s happening down south. I have to get these reports to His Majesty.” Warspite stood up from the table, gathering up the various files her subordinates had passed to her as she did so. “This session of the High Court of Royal Navy is hereby adjourned.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” said the Queen of the Royal Navy In Exile, trying to straighten the crown that, despite her best efforts, sat crookedly on her brow. “Let’s get to it.”

Chapter Text

"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.

"RENOWN!"

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.

"Sis!"

"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.

"SIS!"

"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.

"REN-!"

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, tearingcrackingshattering-

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.

Chapter Text

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.

Right?

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.

“Flagship.”

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.

“Miss?”

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.