AN: So, here cometh another AL fanfic. Not an awful lot to say here except thanks for swinging on by and giving this a look-see. This was heavily inspired by the excellent Chronicles of the Siren War by SabatonBabylon—by far the best AL story on this or any other site in my opinion—and if you've not had the pleasure of reading it yet, then I very much recommend you do. I will further note that this will be rather divergent from the AL canon, in part because I wanted to take my own spin on things and also because, well, Chronicles exists and if you want that, then you've already got it there. I will also add that I am slightly adjusting the name of the nation of Royal Navy to Royal Kingdom, though any naval forces from that part of the world will, obviously, still be referred to as being from the Royal Navy. It's still not a great name, I will admit, but imo it makes a little more sense than referring to an entire nation as a Navy.
So, anyway, here it is: a story with a similar overarching plot in terms of Siren shenanigens but hopefully told differently enough that it will stand on its own. I bid you welcome and very much hope that you enjoy.
Solace: A Commander's Tale
Chapter One: Grim Tidings
It was a peculiar sort of day, thought the man as he looked out upon the waves. There was not a cloud in the sky, and as a result of that and his current location, all one could see wherever they looked were the various, pleasing shades of blue. The sun beat down overhead, and the wind was but a soft and calming breeze, combining with the generous heat to paint an astoundingly pleasant picture of Summer.
Yet, for all that, Lieutenant-Commander Graham Graves would not go so far as to call the day 'good'.
"Penny for your thoughts, Lord Commander?"
Graham pushed himself off the safety railings that marked the edge of the hull of the great warship he stood upon and turned to face the owner of the voice who had hailed him. A young woman stood at a respectful distance, garbed in a royal cobalt blue uniform that somehow managed to double as a fashionable-looking dress with neat, gold trim along her waistline and cutting vertically down the flanks. Towards the hem, a white underskirt could be seen through a modest slit along the sides, and her legs were clad in black leggings while impeccably white, waterproof shoes adorned her feet. The breast of her overcoat was decorated most vividly in gold once more, the embroidery stretching from her shoulders down to her upper abdomen in an inwardly-curving v-shape. Snowy white fur trimmed her neckline and an equally white ascot protruded from within her collar to flutter airily in the gentle wind. A short cape stretched from her shoulders, and the pattern so boldly displayed upon it was instantly familiar to anyone born in the Royal Kingdom.
She smiled at Graham, folding her gloved hands over each other, and as ever, the Royal Navy Lieutenant-Commander found his spirits lifting at her beatific expression. Her twinkling cerulean blues held naught but warmth and comfort, and her hair shone like a star beneath her elegant, white hat. Her lips were a soft peach, and were as flawless as the rest of her. No sooner had that final thought occurred when he realised that he was staring.
Clearing his throat, he offered the young woman a sheepish grin. "I may be an officer, but I'm far from a lord, Lady Hood," he said. "I'm also not a Commander. Not a full one, anyway."
"And yet for all that, your will is my command," Hood replied.
"It's not the same thing, Hood," Graham shook his head, "and you know it."
She inclined her head, acknowledging his point, before casting her gaze out to the unending sea before them.
"There were rather more out here today than were reported," she noted with a graver tone of voice.
"There were," Graham agreed. "I'll need to let Admiral Mercer know, once we return."
"Of course, Lord Commander."
Graham grimaced, "Please," he said, "just Lieutenant-Commander, Hood?"
There was a flicker of amusement on Hood's face as she offered him a small, courteous bow, "As my Lord Commander desires."
Graham sighed, knowing as soon as the words left his mouth that it would be a fruitless request. "Well, Hood, your Lord Commander would like us to make all due haste back to port." He had barely finished speaking before Graham felt the ship shift beneath his feet as it began the process of turning in order to make course for Portsmouth.
"Will that be all?" asked Hood.
A thought occurred to him, and he nodded. "No, actually. Relay my instructions to the rest of our flotilla as well, please."
"They are already coming about, Lord Commander."
"Good, good," hummed Graham as he turned to lean on the railings to once again look out upon the water. Sensing that Hood remained in place, he glanced over his shoulder. Sure enough, she was still there, a look of mild concern marring her otherwise exquisite features.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
"Are you not going to join me on the bridge?" she asked. "It's calm now, but—"
"I don't believe we're in any more danger, Hood," he interrupted. When she frowned at him, he added, "Though if it really bothers you so much, I'll be up there in a few minutes. For the moment, however, I'd just like to remain out here while it's nice for a little while longer."
Hood appeared to mull this over and then nodded.
"I'll give you ten minutes, Lord Commander, and then I shall return for you."
Graham was about to tell her that the gesture would hardly be necessary, but Hood had already turned around and was striding briskly away. The officer sighed and returned his attention outward once more. As they came about, the picturesque vista began to shift. Where once a view of the gently lapping waves filled his vision, the view was gradually broken up by the sight of three additional warships that sailed gradually into view, each one following the lead of the great warship that served as the flagship of this little combat flotilla. Two destroyers, whom he knew to be Crescent and Fortune, and a light cruiser, Achilles. He saw a figure waving at him from atop the coning tower of the cruiser, and couldn't help the chuckle that escaped his lips. Raising an arm, he waved casually back before looking out over the waves.
His peaceful mood faltered, as the rest of the scene panned out before his eyes. Marring the otherwise perfect sight were the broken shards of half a dozen sleek, angular craft. Most of them burned, and one had almost slipped beneath the waves entirely, dealt a mortal wound via a well-placed torpedo from one of the destroyers. The ships were large—at least the size of a cruiser. Some, Graham knew, could reach the size of full-blown battleships and others, he had heard, were beyond even that scale. Their hulls were black, and shimmered like the carapace of a beetle, each bearing strange, alien markings that once glowed an angry red but had faded to a dull maroon with their deaths.
Years before Graham was a babe in arms, these unknowable, impossible beings appeared in the world's oceans and devastated the shorelines of human civilisation. Entire coastlines had burned in the opening days of the assault, and the nations of the world reeled as they attempted to form some manner of response. It took almost a year before a breakthrough was made: The Wisdom Cubes, and with it came the Valkyries of the waves. Ships who—by a process Graham was sure he would never understand even if he had three lifetimes to study the phenomenon—were granted human form.
Forms like Hood's…
Though their appearances would vary wildly, within each was packed the strength and firepower of a several-thousand tonne warship. Destroyers, battleships, cruisers, and even the more recent aircraft carriers would take to the waves and drive the invaders into the depths. The outsiders were broken, and though Siren sightings were far from uncommon even in this day and age, the threat to humanity was ended. It was claimed recently that, one day soon, the last of these Siren stragglers would be eradicated, and true peace would return to the oceans of Earth once again.
Graham couldn't help but doubt now that this would turn out to be the case.
The Sirens had been spotted by a military transport plane and, mercifully, Graham's combat flotilla was close enough to intercept. He and the others had made all speed, expecting to find disorganised, confused opponents. They had instead met with stiff opposition, and it was only thanks to some superb manoeuvring and a flawless broadside from Hood that damage had been avoided and the enemy fleet destroyed.
Privately, however, Graham knew that they had been lucky. The very first salvoes to come their way were overrange and gave his flotilla the opportunity to pinpoint the Sirens' positions more accurately. If the Sirens had perhaps held off and taken more careful aim…
Hood's voice brought him out of his dark musings and he felt himself jerk in surprise. He hadn't realised he had been so deeply engrossed in thought; he'd hardly heard her approach.
"Yes, Hood?" he asked, turning around. "What is it?"
"It's been ten minutes, Lord Commander," said Hood with a demure expression. "I have come to escort you back to the bridge as I said I would." She paused and then cocked her head at him quizzically. "Did I perhaps startle you?"
He very briefly considered telling her that she hadn't, but he'd have been lying.
"I was rather deep in thought," he nodded, scratching at his jaw. "Didn't hear you return."
"Evidently," Hood said with a soft giggle. "Come," she said, offering her arm, "I have set up a table for us upstairs and have already taken the liberty of brewing a pot of tea."
"That seems a little inappropriate, given we're still technically in a combat site," Graham noted with a quirk of an eyebrow.
"You have said it yourself, my Lord Commander: the danger has passed. Besides," she smiled up at him, "it is my bridge."
Well, she had him there.
"In that case, then," said Graham, as he linked his arm through Hood's, "I will count myself privileged to take you up on your generous offer, Lady Hood."
"I thought you might say that," Hood giggled again, as she ushered the pair towards the entrance to her superstructure. Graham had a moment to cast one last glance over his shoulder, his gaze lingering briefly on the dead Siren warships, before turning away, an ominous feeling bubbling in his gut even as the woman on his arms led him inside.
Portsmouth was rather more bustling than it normally was upon their return, and Hood remarked upon it as they docked.
"I wonder what has everyone in such a hurry?" she asked, standing at Graham's side and watching as small groups of uniformed sailors marched at abnormally brisk paces across the port even as another group helped to guide Graves' flotilla into the docks.
"I couldn't tell you," answered Graham honestly, "though I imagine we'll find out soon. Anything that's filtered down to the enlisted men like this can't be a secret."
"I think you're quite correct," said Hood, who then cocked her head in curiosity down at a man who appeared to be waving up at them.
"Oh my," mused Hood, "whatever could this be?"
Graham did not answer, and instead descended from Hood's bridge with the shipgirl in tow. Once a boarding ramp was attached, the two stepped off of the deck and back onto Terra Firma, where they were greeted by the NCO, who offered a crisp but hurried salute. Graham returned the salute, and gave the man a curt not.
"Leading Hand, what brings you here?"
"Admiral requests your presence, sir," was the immediate response. "Immediately."
Graham blinked, surprised, "Is he that desperate for my report?"
"I couldn't say, sir. All I know is what I was told. If you'd follow me, please, sir?"
Graham shared a look with Hood, whose brow was furrowed ever so minutely in puzzled consternation. Six months ago, even Graham might not have caught her subtle expression but, having worked with the venerable shipgirl as long as he had, the Lieutenant-Commander liked to think he was a little more tuned in to what the flagship of his combat flotilla was thinking.
"See to the others, if you wouldn't mind, Hood?" he requested. "I suppose I'd best go and see what the bother is about."
"Very good, Lord Commander," said Hood, slipping into a more professional demeanour with practised ease. "I shall find you at a later time, then." With that, she offered both him and the Leading Hand a polite curtsey before splitting off to see to the other three girls in Graham's flotilla. The officer watched her leave for a few seconds before turning to the NCO, finding him also staring off at Hood's departing form. Clearing his throat, Graham brought the man back to the present, who coloured in embarrassment at having been caught leering by a superior officer.
"Ah, if you'll erm, just follow me then, sir?"
"Lead on, Mister Smith," Graham said, reading the name emblazoned on a tag upon his uniform and electing to drop the matter of the NCO's wandering eyes from his mind. Shipgirls, in his experience, had that effect on people. Even the youngest of them, he had no doubt, would one day grow up to become women of exquisite beauty.
Provided of course that they can grow up, he thought to himself. He still wasn't sure how that worked. He wasn't even all that certain they did.
Banishing the thought from his mind, at least for the time being, he followed the NCO into the main base facilities, and through the long, winding series of halls and corridors, all bristling with activity. Graham saw enlisted sailors and officers and even a few shipgirls all busying about with tightly controlled expressions like they were trying very hard to clamp down on some secret, awful knowledge. Ever more, Graham began to feel as though something, somewhere had gone terribly, terribly wrong and he was only now being made aware of it.
The Leading Hand led him to the Admiral's office, occupied by one Rear Admiral Roy Mercer—a man who, in Graham's opinion, was perhaps the most reliable to have ever commanded the facilities at Portsmouth in the many years that the Royal Navy had been on a war footing. Graham knocked on the door, and was rewarded by a prompt call from within to enter.
Admiral Mercer was pushing sixty, but looked a whole fifteen years younger than that. Broad-shouldered and tall, with not a hint of stoop that began afflicting many at his age and bright, twinkling blue eyes that perfectly complimented the almost permanent grin he seemed to wear. By rights, he should have retired years ago but his exuberant personality, inspirational leadership and keen insight had made him too valuable to lose even now. One only needed to look at him and get the impression that this was a man who would live forever, and Graham silently thought that he would somehow find a way to outlive everyone.
There was not a trace of that humour upon his face now, though. In its place was an expression as severe as the most uncompromising disciplinarian in the strictest of boarding schools. For even one as Admiral Mercer to be so affected… Graham braced himself for the worst even as he stood to attention and offered the man seated at his desk a salute.
"Good to see you again, Lieutenant-Commander," greeted the Admiral with a curt nod. "Be at ease, and take a seat. You may well need it before we're done here."
Graham felt a bead of sweat drip down his flank as he obliged his commanding officer and took the proffered chair opposite.
"I'm sure you've noticed the kerfuffle going on outside."
"Yes, sir," Graham nodded.
"Ordinarily, I'd have an amusing little anecdote that I'd make use of to segue into the current situation, but in this instance, it would be in extremely poor taste for me to do so and to compound our woes there's little time as is," Admiral Mercer paused, then sighed. "So, here it is, Lieutenant-Commander: as of approximately one and a half hours ago, the Sirens launched a strike against a top secret facility in Iceland. The facility itself held much of the Command staff of the navies of Eagle Union, Iris Libre, Ironblood, Vichya Dominion, Sardegna and Sakura Empires, Eastern Radiance, Northern Parliament, as well as our own Royal Kingdom."
Before Graham could even begin to register his shock at such a calamitous event, Mercer continued. "The meeting was also supposed to be a secret. We aren't sure how the devils found out about it, and we don't expect that we will anytime soon. Regardless, the end result is that the facility has been totally levelled, and only a handful of individuals from the various nations taking part survived to report on this catastrophe to the rest of us. We, as well as the other major naval powers of our world, have effectively been decapitated."
Graham felt as though all the blood had been drained from his body and he slumped in his chair, his mind reeling. "E-e…" he started, but his mouth was dry and the words wouldn't come. He forced himself to swallow; to wet his tongue and lubricate his throat. "Everyone?"
"All but two of the Admiralty were not present during the attack, and you are looking at one of them. The First Sea Lord was there with his full staff complement, and if any among them did survive, we likely won't hear from them any time soon, such has been the destruction visited."
"I—I'm sorry, Sir," began Graham again, as he struggled to prop himself up in his seat and straighten up. "But… I don't understand: why were so many high-ranking officers—"
Mercer cut him off with a gesture. "I was coming to that, lad. You see, despite what His Majesty's Government would like the hardworking public to think, we and the other naval powers never truly believed that we saw the end of the Sirens during what we hoped at the time was the final engagement at Ironbottom Sound."
Graham managed to nod in mute understanding, still a little dumbstruck by the bomb that Mercer had dropped on him. Ironbottom Sound had been the largest battle between humanity and the Sirens. An absolutely titanic fleet formed from all the world's navies with manpower and shipgirls to spare had assembled to take the fight to what everyone believed to be the original site of the Siren's invasion. A gigantic alien structure had allegedly been built, and Graham remembered studying photos of the thing during his time at the Britannia Royal Naval College. It had eclipsed any manmade structure ever made, and once the back of the Siren fleet had been broken it took almost an entire week to completely level, despite protests from Ironblood and the Northern Parliament that the technology within should be studied in the event that a new enemy should attack the Earth.
Were their protestations vindicated with the resurgence of the Siren threat? Graham could not answer. He was only a newborn when the Siren Tower, as it was so creatively named, was toppled. He would not dare presume to know better than the men and women of the time who had been confronted with something so wholly beyond their understanding.
Mercer, however, was continuing with his tale, and Graham strove to listen as best he could. "So, in secret, a truce between all our nations was struck, and a scheme was hatched, one that was meant to bear fruit long before today, but with Siren attacks decreasing so dramatically across the globe…" he sighed. "Perhaps we simply lulled ourselves into believing that we could have a few years of peace before the coalition was needed."
"I'm sorry, sir… coalition?"
"As it sounds, Lieutenant-Commander: a collaborative effort between all the major naval powers of the world. The Siren War had demonstrated quite clearly to all of us that we—humans, shipgirls—can do incredible things when we band together as one. This project was meant to encapsulate that belief—that ideal: one force for Humanity. They would take no part in the petty squabbles between member nations and would exist solely to guard our planet from threats beyond."
"Threats such as the Sirens," murmured Graham in understanding.
"Indeed," nodded Mercer. "Much discussion was had over who would have ultimate authority in this organisation. It could not rest solely with any one power, else the whole reason for forming this task force would be for naught. A council, then, it was decided, formed from the various officials among the leadership of the member states, whom the head of this organisation would report to. This was decided in mercifully short order, I'm thankful to say, which left only the issue of whom we should pick to head up the project. It could not be anyone placed too high up in the chain of command, yet it could also not go to a mere junior officer, for reasons I'm sure you can understand."
Graham nodded, wondering where exactly the venerable Admiral was going with this tale.
"We were meant to settle on our candidates then and there, but owing to the fact that we more or less fell into complacency, nothing came of it. The increasing frequency of Siren attacks in the past six months, however, saw us reopen old channels and suddenly we were scrambling to produce results. We could not select just anyone, and not only would the individual in question have to be among our best, he would also have to be possessed of a character beyond questioning. If even one of our partner nations doubted, the project would fail."
Graham felt his heart sink. "Our candidate was killed, too, wasn't he?"
Admiral Mercer paused, and a little of his old humour returned to his face as he fixed Graham with a sly smirk. "Actually, he wasn't."
"Really? That's—that's brilliant news!" Graham cried, feeling vigour return to his limbs as he forced himself into a more upright sitting position. "We're sending a rescue team to retrieve him, I assume. I volunteer myself and my combat flotilla to be a part of the effort."
Mercer chuckled, "I commend your enthusiasm, Lieutenant-Commander, but I assure you that—noble as the gesture is—it will also be quite unnecessary."
Graham blinked in incomprehension. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't understand. If our candidate is still alive then, surely, he'll need to be retrieved so he can… I don't know, help get this project started. If he's survived then others will have, too, right?"
"There are no others, lad," said Mercer, his good mood dissipating like a morning mist. "And even if there are, the state that the facility was left in will not have been kind to anyone who might have survived the barrage and collapse of the building. They will not be ready to take on the responsibilities."
Graham felt like he was floundering in water. One second he felt like he had a grasp on things, and the next, Mercer seemed to pull the rug out from under him. "Okay, so… if this is the case then how—how do you know that our candidate is still breathing?"
Admiral Mercer folded his arms on the wooden surface of his desk and leaned forward a fraction to stare at Graham. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, the much older man cocked his eyebrow at him.
"…no," Graham murmured, "…surely not."
"Has the penny dropped, Lieutenant-Commander?"
"Me?" he asked, beyond incredulous. "I-I mean, I'm beyond flattered that you think so highly of me, sir, but—"
"Your response would suggest," said Admiral Mercer, carefully, "that you believe you have a choice in whether or not to step up."
"Graham," Mercer said, dropping his voice to a low, sombre volume. The use of his given name surprised him greatly, enough so that it silenced whatever protestations had been about to spill from his lips. "This is a calamity beyond any we have known in a long, long time. If the Sirens are returning, then we need to be ready. We are already steps behind with the loss of almost our entire command staff and the other nations are in no better condition. There is no one else left, and the Council—or what remains of it—made our decision the moment it was confirmed that your flotilla made it back into port. As of that moment, you are now the Commander of Project Azur Lane."