The pounding of rubber on the tarmac jolted him awake, his senses bombarded by new surroundings. The smell of smoking rubber filled his nose. The rattling of the military transport plane filled his ears. Humidity clung to his skin, rendering his white, starched uniform oppressive in the pacific heat. Harsh, tropical sun poured in through the small port holes, beating down on the unremarkable naval air strip at Pearl Harbor. After a few minutes of uncomfortable taxiing, the main door opened and the handful of Eagle Union personnel aboard the transport stood and deplaned.
"Can you believe that guy? Who falls asleep in a tin can like this?"
"What does it matter to you? For what it's worth I heard he was a sardine before this."
"So why the transfer? It's not like this division is part of-"
"Shut it you idiot! That's for the brass to know, not us. He's here for a reason."
"If it's those useless girls…God help him."
"What the hell did I say, man? Can it!"
"Finally," the final occupant of the transport whispered as the voices receded, collecting his duffel and walking to the open door. Girls? On a base like this? Some sort of fucked up morale boost? What the hell is going on? Andrew Thorson pondered as he descended the metal stairs to the pavement below.
"Commander Thorson, I'm glad you could make it. Welcome to Pearl Harbor." The commander stood at attention at the hail, an imposing figure a navy blue admiral's uniform approaching him on the tarmac.
"Sir, thank you sir!" He responded, bringing his heels together and fashioning a crisp salute.
"At ease, commander. Care to join me for a walk? How was your trip?"
"Uneventful, Admiral Hawkins. Sir-" The commander fell silent as a distinctly feminine form entered his field of view from the right. Her caramel skin and blonde ponytail formed an eye-catching combination, accented by the high cut shorts and shirt of a standard Union PT uniform. Thorson found it difficult to keep his gaze on her blue eyes and serious face, her bosom making itself known under a shirt meant for a male. A single word was traced neatly over the left breast in permanent marker: Tennessee. Is she…crew?
"Admiral," she spoke coolly, seemingly peeved to have been interrupted during her workout. Even so she rendered a salute every bit as official as Thorson's had been, her bosom shaking slightly with the effort. The commander glanced to his left with a raised brow, surprised to see a darkening frown on the admiral's face.
"You have exercises at 0800 hours. You will be late," the admiral chastised her.
"No sir," the woman replied. "I'll be there."
"See to it that you are. Dismissed," the admiral barked. With that the mysterious woman turned and departed, continuing her training run around the airstrip. Thorson spared her a single glance as she left, recalling his pre-enlistment days when he would spend his precious spare time on the beaches of San Diego. Even in that Mecca of skin he'd never seen a woman quite that imposing in her beauty. The admiral's voice brought him back to the present. "My apologies for the unwanted interruption, commander. What was it that you wished to ask?"
"Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Who is she?"
"A failed weapon."
"Is it in the habit of all submarine crewmen to be so silent?" Admiral Hawkins asked as he entered his office with the commander in tow. The room was situated at the top of a small tower overlooking the airfield and the base below, where a significant proportion of the Eagle Union's pacific fleet rested at the docks.
"My apologies, admiral. I was simply thinking," Thorson apologized. "You have quite the view, sir."
"Mmm, indeed. Makes me feel like I'm in control, though I am willing to admit the situation is not as tight as I'd like. That is why you're here."
"Sir? I don't understand."
"Do you smoke, commander?" The admiral asked, procuring a pack of lucky strikes and lighting one with practiced ease, the clink and strike of the zippo lighter a familiar sound to both men.
"I don't smoke, but thank you sir," Thorson responded, waving away the cigarette with a polite hand.
"A man without vice, are you?" The admiral asked jovially.
"That's just not one of them, sir."
"I see. Can an honest man keep a secret then?" The admiral asked pointedly, allowing a thin trail of smoke to escape his lips and curl upward until the ceiling fan dispersed it. Thorson remained silent. "Very good then, though it's not like you have a choice in the matter. Tell me commander, what do you know of the Sirens?"
"So they're real then, are they?" Thorson asked, maintaining his stance despite what felt like a punch to the gut. What the bloody hell is going on here?
"I expected more surprise but yes, they are real," the admiral affirmed, opening a locked drawer on his desk and removing a well stuffed, leather bound binder. "Sit, please," he ordered, passing the mass of papers and images across the desk. Thorson dropped his bag to the floor and accepted the offered chair, opening the binder and flipping through the documents within as the admiral continued. "That first batch of papers documents everything we know about first contact with the Sirens, back in 1931 when Azur Lane was still an entity. They approached the leaders of the four factions simultaneously, offering us the artifacts known as wisdom cubes and the technology to adapt them to our current weaponry. They retreated shortly thereafter. No one's heard from them since, at least not officially. No known motive for this action has even been discovered." Thorson nodded, pausing for a moment to examine a black and white photo of one such wisdom cube. An uneasy feeling came over him as he looked it over. Even in that still shot the object reeked of the unknown.
"An alien race appears out of nowhere and gives us what they claim is the key to a super weapon?"
"That just about sums it up, commander. Sounds like the opening chapter of a bad pulp fiction, doesn't it?" The admiral agreed, taking another drag of his cigarette.
"I find it hard to disagree, sir. I suppose humanity did exactly what one would expect, the Eagle Union included? Wait…that alliance dissolved in 1939…" the commander trailed off, rubbing his chin.
"You're getting ahead of yourself, commander, but I see that look in your eye and I think the OSS made the right choice when they recommended you for this post. I will allow you access to this material in full once you've settled in but for now prepare to receive your orders."
At the admiral's words the commander stood at ease, hands behind his back. "Yes sir!"
"Azur Lane ran a joint research commission from 1931 to 1939 until it was dissolved. The labs were situated all over the globe, with the closest being an endeavor between the Eagle Union and the Sakura Empire, situated on an island in the Pacific. The location of said island is, of course, classified. We tried everything: guns, tanks, aircraft…nothing worked. Over those eight years of research only one application of wisdom cube technology ever bore fruit, the weapon colloquially known as the 'shipgirl'."
Ship…girl? He said shipgirl. Wait, that woman at the tarmac. Tennessee. Was she…
"Stay focused, commander! Since the Ironbloods invaded Poland and the union was severed we've continued research efforts on our own, but to no avail. The reality of the situation is that the current war demands more than just a girl who can control a warship. Men can already do that. Granted it takes hundreds or thousands, but that's something we know, something we can work with. If one man dies, another can fill his place. If one of these girls dies…hell, I don't think anyone knows how to replace her. That is an unacceptable situation for an armed force at war. Your background is in military engineering, correct?"
"What did you do before entering the service?"
"I was in construction, sir. My father has a small company in San Diego."
"And why did you choose to serve aboard a sardine can? I doubt it was for the food," the admiral joked with the smallest twitch of his lips.
"No sir. I was curious. It was the most advanced assignment I could pull as a new recruit. I didn't know anything about any of this."
"Damn right you didn't, no one does. The reality is that a good proportion of the fleet is currently crewed both by a shipgirl and a full complement; though during combat operations the crews are the primary operators of the ships. During operations the girls remain out of sight, lest the Sakura or Ironbloods catch on, to say nothing of the press or civilians. Lord only knows they do the same to us."
"Permission to ask a question, sir?"
"This…technology was co-developed among the four major powers. Each knows the other has it. Why the secrecy?"
The admiral nodded in reply. "If God handed you and your enemy both a weapon, would you discard it?"
"No sir, I would try to use it," Thorson admitted.
"And would you publicize your attempts to harness its power?"
"Exactly. The general public doesn't know a thing about these 'girls'. The other branches of the armed forces don't know about them. You are here because the Eagle Union brass has decided to engage in one final effort to unlock…something, anything in these girls. A team of individuals from various branches has been assembled that you will be a part of. The rest of them are already here and waiting for you in building B-1, a converted laboratory adjacent to the USS Arizona's current dock. They have seen what you have seen and have been briefed as you have. I expect results, Commander Thorson. I don't think I need to tell you how much money and effort has been sunk into this cause already."
"I understand, sir. If I may?" Thorson asked as he checked his watch. It was 0740.
"What happens if we fail?"
"The Eagle Union continues to make breakthroughs in mass production of conventional weaponry. The sirens haven't been seen since '31. Our enemy is the Crimson Axis. We will overwhelm them with superior manpower and industrial might, along with our allies."
"And the existing shipgirls?" Thorson pressed.
"They will share the same fate as any obsolete weapon, commander." The admiral ground his cigarette butt into a well-used ashtray and retrieved the binder from the other side of the desk. "You will find copies of all this information in the lab. Read it, internalize it, and consult with your new team. I expect an action plan on my desk by 1500 hours on December 10th. You have one year. Understood?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"Very good, dismissed." At the admiral's word the commander retrieved his bag and exited the tower, descending the steps and walking the short distance to the much longer set of concrete stairs that would take him down to the dockyard. His head swarmed with thoughts like a nest of angry hornets. You've got to be kidding me. Shipgirls? What even is a shipgirl? How are they related to wisdom cubes? What the fuck even is a wisdom cube for that matter? Weapons? That thing…girl…woman…whatever I saw, that wasn't a weapon. Weapons don't exercise. Weapons don't take pride in their body. I wonder if that avenue has been explored before or if everyone's treated them like Admiral Hawkins. Hrrm, 0748. The admiral did say there were exercises planned for 0800. Maybe I should attend those before heading to B-1, see if I can catch a glimpse of them in action? The commander's thoughts were silenced by the wailing of the air raid alarm.
"A raid? How could we…we're not officially at war!" He muttered, throwing down his duffel and unzipping it as fast as he could. "Damnit, I just got here. I don't even have a post! Like hell I'm going to sit in a lab if we're under attack." He withdrew a battered leather binocular case from his bag and quickly held the binoculars to his eyes. He'd had little use for them aboard a submarine, but he was thankful he'd kept the 17th birthday present with him now. He trained his vision on the black shapes on the horizon easily enough, twisting the focus dials and finally getting a clear image of the incoming aircraft. Bright red circles adorned their wings. "The Sakura. By God, look at them all. That's at least three carrier group's worth of planes. This…this isn't just a raid, it's an all-out assault. Do they know about this base? Do they know about-" Thorson felt his heart pound as he remembered the woman from the tarmac. Were they here for her? Was she going to somehow fight? Had the Sakura learned of the Union's attempt to augment shipgirl technology? "What the hell," Thorson whispered as he kept his eyes trained on the western horizon. "That many is…that exceeds our estimates of the Empire's total air force."
It was hell on Earth. Arizona, along with her elder sister Pennsylvania, had been on her way from the shipgirl barracks to her post for the morning's routine training exercise when the air raid alarm sounded. They had taken one look at the sky before Pennsylvania buttoned her uniform fully and took off running, leaving her sister with the parting words 'today we finally fight for real'. By the time Arizona made it to her ship's dock, Pearl Harbor had become unrecognizable. The sounds of AA fire, Sakura dive bombers, and the screams of sailors were everywhere, punctuated by the detonations of torpedoes, bombs, and ammunition caches. Towers of thick, black smoke billowed to the sky, tinged red by the fires below. "Wait for me, please hang in there!" Arizona pleaded, sprinting as fast as she could towards the gangway. For a split second she shifted her focus to a white uniform, a sailor she'd never seen before hurrying down the steps to the docks, but other matters demanded her attention. The deck of the USS Arizona was already in flames and she was sure that her command room was damaged or destroyed, but she didn't need it to fight. Things would be different this time. "I just have to…get there!" She gasped, hitting the ground as an enemy fighter dived for the docks nearby, its payload deafening her ears and scorching her back, even though her uniform. With ringing in her ears and pain in her lungs she stood and made to carry on when an unknown voice called out to her over the din.
Arizona turned to the sky and her world went black.