2: Deep Sea Party
26 August, 0807 Hours (Greenwich Mean Time)
Sick Bay, Tuatha de Danaan, 200 Meter Depth, West Pacific Ocean
Tessa seemed far more put-together now than when they’d met months before. Her khaki uniform, with knee-length skirt and indigo tie, lent her an air of distinction. The last time Kaname had seen her, Tessa had been in a baggy T-shirt and cargo pants, and it had been hard to buy her as any kind of top-ranked officer.
Wow. She really is military... Kaname felt a strange sense of wonder as she peered closely at the girl.
“Wh-What is it?” Tessa took a half-step back, unsettled by the scrutiny.
“Oh... nothing,” Kaname said. “How have you been?”
“Just fine, thank you,” Tessa replied politely. “Kaname-san... you look rather tired.”
Kaname was on a bed in the sick bay, bundled up in a blanket and sipping hot cocoa. The ship’s doctor had just finished running basic tests on her body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure; she was a middle-aged black woman named Goldberry who held the military rank of captain. She had rattled off phrases like “you’re looking better already” and “you’ve got quite a constitution,” as she examined her, before giving the diagnosis, “you’re in perfect health.”
Sousuke was standing in front of the sick bay door, chest out in “at ease” posture. Kaname cast a sidelong glance at him as she replied, “I mean, I only got pushed out of a plane, thrown into the ocean, and dragged underwater... you’d have to be an idiot not to find that exhausting. A major idiot...”
A single bead of sweat appeared on Sousuke’s temple as he listened.
“I’m sorry...” Tessa apologized. “We’re not equipped to land conventional aircraft here. It must have been such an ordeal...”
“Hey, it’s okay... I’d been wanting to see you again, too,” Kaname reassured her. “And we’ve got a lot to talk about, right?”
“Yes, of course there’s that. But first... Sergeant Sagara?”
“Yes, Colonel, ma’am?” he answered with ridiculous formality.
“Go to the main hangar,” Tessa ordered. “Find someone there and tell them that we’re heading their way.”
After a long moment of confusion, Sousuke replied, “Yes, ma’am.” He saluted and left the sick bay behind.
Kaname couldn’t quite explain what, but she felt something was off about their exchange. It was entirely businesslike, lacking any sexual tension or double entendre. Earlier, Tessa had told Kaname that she’d fallen for Sousuke; she’d told her, “let’s both do our best.” Of course, the “both” was a huge misunderstanding on Tessa’s part; Kaname didn’t even like Sousuke that way... From her point of view, it was more of an, “Uh, sure, good luck with that” kind of thing. She’d even almost said that... But still, it did concern her.
Ever since that day, any time Sousuke had left Tokyo for Mithril work, Kaname would find herself feeling vaguely uneasy. What were Sousuke and Tessa talking about when she wasn’t around? Were they spending all their time together? Were they sneaking into the sub’s gymnasium storehouse to get all hot and heavy and...
“Kaname-san?” Tessa interrupted.
“Huh?” Kaname snapped out of her daydream.
“Do you think you could get dressed? I was hoping to give you a tour of the boat; there are a few things you’ll need to know.”
“S-Sure. Hang on a minute...” Kaname withdrew into the back of the sick bay and started getting changed. As she took off her swimsuit, she caught a glimpse of herself in the wall mirror. The alluring figure of a naked girl—smooth, dewy skin; long, black hair that tangled, half-dried, around slender shoulders and voluptuous breasts. She hugged herself to cover her chest, turned around and glanced back... Hey, not a bad view, huh? Pretty good, even... She wouldn’t call herself irresistible, exactly, but she’d say she had it where it counted. Easily a match for her, anyway, Kaname assured herself, then immediately felt extremely stupid about it. Privately mortified, she reddened and sped through putting her clothes on. She slid on a rich blue dress, tied her hair with its usual red ribbon, slipped on her sandals and came out.
Doctor Goldberry handed her something. “Keep this on you, if you would.” It was a plastic stick the size of a piece of chewing gum.
“What is this?” Kaname asked.
“It’s a bit like litmus paper; it changes colors in the presence of high concentrations of neutrons.”
“If it turns orange, that’s a danger sign,” Doctor Goldberry explained. “You’ll want to get away from the engine room as quickly as possible.”
“And make sure to give it back to me before you disembark,” Tessa came in to explain. “My submarine runs on a P/S-type Palladium Reactor. That device is a safety measure in the event of a disaster, but you shouldn’t need to worry about it.”
Kaname just tilted her head in confusion.
“Now, come with me. We wouldn’t want to get separated,” Tessa said, and then left the sick bay.
The halls of the Tuatha de Danaan were just wide enough to accommodate Kaname and Tessa walking side by side, and the ceiling was very low; they were far more cramped than the corridors at school. Kaname’s first thought about these halls when she’d initially come on board were that they were surprisingly chaotic: the walls and ceiling were crammed with thick pipes and cables; valves, levers, switches and fire hoses... The sturdy, watertight doors they passed at regular intervals were fixed with enormous handles. In other words, it was just like any submarine. This was a bit of a letdown for Kaname, who had been led by the boat’s outer appearance to expect the flat walls and ceilings of a space battleship from a sci-fi anime.
“You think it’s stuffy in here, don’t you?” Tessa said to Kaname, turning back even as she walked. “The corridors are quite wide as submarines go, though. We did it to ensure the safety of the crew when they need to run during an emergency. It means that foolish people are inclined to trip and fall—eek!” She really should have watched where she was going. Tessa banged her shoulder against a protruding pipe; the force caused her to spin before she fell, back-first, onto the floor.
“Hey, you okay?” Kaname asked, with concern.
“I’m... I’m fine. It’s nothing, really...” Tessa said with tears in her eyes, as Kaname helped her up.
“That was a close call... Are you sure you’re the captain of this thing?”
“It hurts to hear you say that, but this boat... it’s like my home,” Tessa explained. “There’s nothing I don’t know about it, outside of things related to my crew’s personal lives. For instance, that pipe I just hit was a number 28 B8 service pipe. During the design phase, I was forced to leave it protruding from the wall, to accommodate the placement of other modules,” she said, deftly switching the subject at hand as she resumed leading her down the hall. They passed through several doors and then descended a staircase.
Kaname’s second main impression of the Tuatha de Danaan was that it was quiet. She was pretty sure that the boat was moving, but there was no sound of machinery, and the floor wasn’t vibrating, either. It was as quiet as a shinkansen car.
“I made it to be that way,” Tessa responded when Kaname asked about it. “Stealth is vital for a submarine, so noise is our greatest enemy. A loud ship can be easily detected, even at distances where it couldn’t be made out with the naked eye, and modern-day warfare frequently begins at such distances. Of course... the spread of ECS means that is becoming less and less true in ground and aerial combat.”
“Ah-hah...” Kaname only understood about half of that, but she decided to nod along anyway. What she couldn’t understand was why she had seen so few of the submarine’s crew so far; the corridors were silent, and there was almost no sign of human life. She’d once caught sight of a scowling young crewman, but he disappeared down the hallway without so much as a nod, as if he was avoiding her.
I don’t think they like having me here, Kaname thought uneasily. She had reason to be here, but she was still just a civilian. It was understandable that they wouldn’t be happy to see an outsider like her on their boat. “How many people are on board?” she asked out loud.
“A little over 240, at the moment,” Tessa answered. “And we can accommodate more as needed.”
“So why haven’t I seen many of them?”
“Well, because...” Standing at a dead end in front of a closed watertight door, Tessa stopped and cleared her throat. “Kaname-san, you speak English, don’t you?”
“Yeah, pretty well,” Kaname answered. She’d lived in New York until three years ago, after all. She was a little rusty, but she could handle day-to-day conversation, at least.
“Let’s switch over to that now,” Tessa suggested.
“All right, then follow me. Kaname-san, I’m not sure if you like this kind of thing, but...” Tessa prefaced, then pushed open the thick door and stepped into the room beyond.
Kaname narrowed her eyes suspiciously but walked through. The stagnant air of the passageway gave way to a gentle breeze; the smell of oil stung her nose, and strong light greeted her eyes. “Ah...”
She was standing in an enormous room, which was lit up as bright as day. The ceiling was a little lower than her school gym, but it was deep. Cranes dangled from the ceiling, large screens lined the upper walls, and fuel tanks for helicopters and AS-sized rocket launchers were secured to metal frameworks. They were in a hangar, and along that hangar’s port side stood about 200 crewmen in three neat lines. They spanned from about where Kaname was standing to the back wall: all different ages and races, dressed in a variety of uniform styles. There were khaki suits like Tessa’s, olive green fatigues, orange and blue work jumpsuits, helicopter pilot uniforms, lab coats, cook’s whites, and so on.
There were also six arm slaves—those eight-meter-tall humanoid weapons—lined up behind them, just as neatly as the people. Their heads were inches from the ceiling. Kaname knew them; five were the model known as the M9, while the furthest one back was the white one Sousuke had piloted before. It wasn’t just ASes, either; she could see helicopters and fighter craft lined up neatly beyond them, as well. The sight of the soldiers and weapons of the de Danaan all assembled in the hangar proved a truly impressive view.
What are they doing? Kaname wondered.
The middle-aged man standing next to them caught Tessa’s gaze and nodded. He was a skinny man with glasses and a dour way about him. But despite his appearance, he managed such volume when he called out that Kaname found herself cringing in shock. “Atten-SHUN!!” All present went from rest to attention—two hundred people and six machines, all moving in unison.
“Huh? Huh?” Should I go to “attention” too? Kaname found herself stepping back, flustered.
The man spoke again. “Chidori Kaname, for repeated displays of exceptional courage, decisiveness, and kindness in the face of dangers to Colonel Testarossa and our squad mates, we extend our most heartfelt gratitude.” The man took a deep breath and cried, “Salute!” At his command, all assembled raised their right hand in a salute in the style of the military of their origin.
All of their eyes were on her. Some were utterly serious, some were smiling, some looked appraising; some even seemed to be holding back tears... At the end of the line, Kaname could see Major Kalinin in his olive fatigues. His injuries seemed to have healed, and he held his large body straight and tall as he saluted Kaname respectfully. The six ASes were also saluting, looking down at her. The earnest arch of the white one’s back suggested to her that the pilot was Sousuke; even reflected by a mechanical marionette, she could still recognize his mannerisms.
The M9 second from the end brushed its robotic temple with two fingers, then waved to her with its right hand; that humanoid weapon was hitting on her, which meant its operator was probably Kurz. That meant the next M9 over, nudging it in its mechanical ribs, must be piloted by Mao.
“I realize it’s a bit much, but...” Tessa said with a smile as Kaname stood there, gaping silently. “When they heard you were coming, they all said they wanted to honor you, somehow.”
“Huh... what? M-Me? Um...” she stuttered. The realization that she was the center of attention sent Kaname into an even worse panic.