Bongships Part 3

Dec 28th, 2015
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  1. As it turned out, explaining the new addition to the battlegroup wasn’t nearly as hard as Ben half feared it might be. Surprisingly, it was Delight who proved the most difficult, bombarding the old battleship with questions practically non-stop over the course of the trip back home. Ben could scarcely believe the subdued little destroyer could be so verbally active, and neither could her sister, Dainty, if her own reaction was anything to go by.
  3. It was early evening by the time the debrief was over. The rain and the clouds had cleared up as they had returned, and the water of the English Channel shimmered like a great, rippling blue-silver cloak had been cast and spread out for mile upon mile. A breath-taking sight to be sure, but HMS Cornwallis wasn’t paying attention to any of it.
  5. Instead, his gaze was locked onto the city of Plymouth through a window; the beaches and piers that dotted the coast; the mass of homes, apartment blocks and corner-shops that denoted residential areas; the great, looming skyscrapers in the city centre that stood like watchful colossi. Devonport, and by extension, Plymouth, had so far escaped attack in the ongoing war for Earth’s seas, unlike Portsmouth or London, but how long this uneasy happenstance would last was up for debate.
  7. Ben didn’t consider himself a particularly curious individual, but he couldn’t help but wonder what was going through Cornwallis’ head as he stared out. Even compared to Warspite, Cornwallis was old: a warship from an era where Dreadnoughts were but mere concepts and Britain still possessed an Empire. To be told that his entire world existed no more must have been… well, Ben could hardly begin to imagine.
  9. “There’s so much,” Cornwallis breathed. “When I still roamed the seas, London went on almost as far as the eye could see, but even that pales in comparison to the size of this city.”
  11. He turned to Ben, his wide, blue eyes full of wonder.
  13. “And this is only one of such a size?”
  15. “Sure,” Ben answered with a shrug. “There’s loads even bigger than this one: Washington, New York, Paris, Berlin… the list goes on and on.”
  17. “My God,” Cornwallis murmured, turning his gaze back out to the city. “How quickly things can change.”
  19. It was truer than the old battleship knew.
  21. “Where’s Delight?” Ben asked, changing the topic. “She’s been pretty much glued to you since the trip back here. I’d have thought she’d still be with you.”
  23. Cornwallis flinched ever so slightly, a reaction Ben found faintly amusing.
  25. “Well, I gave her the slip. Took some manoeuvring, but I think I managed it,” he shuddered, “that little one’s got a nose on her like a foxhound. I thought for a while that escape was futile.”
  27. “Why so afraid?” Ben asked. “She’s just curious; shipbo–men are pretty rare. Hell, I’m sure you’re a novelty to the others as well.”
  29. Cornwallis sighed and rubbed the back of his neck with a meaty paw. “I’m still getting used to this whole returning thing. I was focused on hunting down those… Abyssals before so I didn’t really take the time to think about it. Now I have and, well, it’s unnerving. I remember fragments of my life before this, but now I have a body: flesh and blood, thoughts and emotions. I have a -mind-. But is it mine? Or is my personality, my thoughts and my actions; are they all just fragments, echoes of my crew?”
  31. Interesting, but that didn’t really answer the question. Ben decided to indulge him anyway.
  33. “Only fifteen of your old crew died when you were torpedoed,” Ben noted. He’d decided to do some reading on the various girls that made up Battlegroup Warspite. Nothing heavy: a quick glance through their respective Wikipedia pages at most. Hardly in-depth, but he hoped it might provide some better understanding of those he was now expected to work alongside and observe.
  35. Cornwallis said nothing. Instead he turned to Ben with a stony expression. He glanced up and down the corridor, as if suspicious that someone might be eavesdropping on them.
  37. “You said you were here to observe us, right?”
  39. Ben nodded after a short pause.
  41. Cornwallis did another check of the corridor and, without any warning whatsoever, slashed his forearm open on a sharp angle of the anchor on his back. Blood gushed from the freshly opened wound and spilled onto the floor like a crimson waterfall. A mere moment later, Cornwallis clamped his hand over the wound to apply pressure, blood staining his gloved hand red.
  43. Ben took a step back in surprise, gaping at this sudden act of self-mutilation.
  45. “What the -fuck- are you–” he started, but Cornwallis shut him up with a dark look.
  47. “Just. Watch,” Cornwallis hissed through clenched teeth. Ben saw now that the wound was even deeper than it had initially seemed–he was certain he could see bone.
  49. Again, Cornwallis made sure they were alone, and then he manifested his rig. In moments the flow of the old warship’s blood changed from blood red to oily black. In the span of a heartbeat, the flesh and bone and muscle of Cornwallis’ open wound became steel and piping. The observation was not a new one, though Ben knew that many who worked alongside these girls (and boys) found it creepy.
  51. Ben wasn't particularly turned away by the gore, but what he certainly found creepy was when he started to hear muted, tinny, and barely audible voices that sounded very much like they were coming from -within- Cornwallis’ arm.
  53. And when a tiny head popped up from within said arm and inspected the damage with an exasperated expression, Ben began to wonder if London had already started to break him. The head became a body, which clambered out of Cornwallis’ still-bleeding (or was that oiling?) wound and became a figure; a tiny little figure dressed like an old naval rating which raised its hands to its head and ran them slowly down its face. It looked almost like it was in the deepest depths of despair.
  55. Then it turned up to look at Ben, and the tiny creature’s expression changed. Anguish became surprise; became indignation; became anger. It pointed a finger at Ben’s face and screeched in a tongue Ben doubted he’d ever understand if he had a lifetime to study it, before then reaching inside the wound, retrieving what looked like an old welder and hurling it with all its diminutive strength at the looming ex-paratrooper. Ben flinched, but the impact was limp; it felt rather like a bug had flown into him.
  57. The figure waved its arm and rattled off in its curious tongue again, appearing considerably peeved that its attack had no apparent effect, before it turned tail, flipped Ben the bird, and hopped back into Cornwallis’ arm.
  59. Well, then.
  61. The seconds dragged on into minutes, with Ben’s vision locked onto Cornwallis’ open wound. It was so long that Cornwallis must have started to feel awkward, because he nudged him with his other arm.
  63. “Hey now, are you all right there?”
  65. Ben finally tore his gaze away and trailed up to meet Cornwallis’. After a moment, he rediscovered his voice.
  67. “There are tiny little people living inside of you.” Ben observed.
  69. “Yes, there are,” Cornwallis said with a nod. “I discovered this whe–”
  71. “People with tiny, little heads and tiny, little arms and tiny, little legs, speaking a tiny, little tongue,” Ben continued, “living inside of you; inside all of them… with tiny, little tools–well why the fuck not? They must need them for something. Like repairing tiny, little pipes?”
  73. “Damn it man, snap out of it!” Cornwallis shouted, grabbing hold of Ben with both arms and shaking him so roughly that his vision began to blur.
  75. Ben shook his head, and pushed the tall old man away, mind reeling.
  77. “What the actual -fuck-!” he hissed.
  79. “Do not tell anyone that I showed you this,” Cornwallis warned, “not least because they’d no doubt think you mad if you told them.”
  81. “Why?” Ben hissed. “These… whatever the fuck they are, look like a pretty fucking huge deal to me!”
  83. “Twenty-six.”
  85. “What?” Ben wondered, now utterly confused.
  87. “I have observed twenty-six of these beings; twenty-six -individuals-.”
  89. “What? No. No way. You sank with fifteen hands; there is no goddamned way in hell that, even if you are… fuck, ‘manned’ I guess? Manned by tiny little people who -might- be your dead crew…” Ben trailed off. His head was starting to hurt. Nothing about this situation made any fucking sense. “Fuck it, just–fuck it–I’ll keep your damned secret, just keep that weird crap away from me.”
  91. Cornwallis took a step back, arching a grey eyebrow. Ben realised he had started to raise his voice, and willed himself to calm down, but found himself unable to. He felt strangely cold despite the warmth of the building interior and was almost certain his vision was starting to spin. There was also something in the air, a faint smell that was eerily familiar: a hint of spice and the barest touch of…
  93. It didn’t matter. Ben didn’t feel right. The extras from The Borrowers were too much and now all he wanted to do was drink until all knowledge of the last five minutes was permanently wiped from his memory. He took a shaky breath and held himself steady, noting the way Cornwallis observed him with a curious but wary eye.
  95. “Okay,” he muttered under his breath, rubbing his jaw with a hand that shook like a rattle in the hands of an infant. “Okay, okay, okay, okay.”
  97. “You all right?” Cornwallis asked.
  99. “Fine,” Ben replied, a little too quickly. “Look I, fuck–appreciate? I guess that works–I appreciate you letting me know about this but all the same…”
  101. Cornwallis sighed, long and heavily. “No, forgive me, this was a mistake. I made an assumption that you had at least -some- knowledge of this, and if I’d known you’d react like this, I wouldn’t have bothered at all.” He turned and strode off, no doubt to find some medical assistance. “I apologise for ruining your day, Mr McLeod.”
  103. Ben watched him go, and then decided that he should probably make a report to John regarding Cornwallis’ appearance. He didn’t think he’d bother to make mention of the tiny man with the welder, though part of him wondered what the perpetually grinning spook might make of the tale. Grunting, he turned away and made his way down the corridor to leave the building and head back to his quarters.
  105. He had some time to think as he was making his way back, almost too much time. His entire thought process revolved around what Cornwallis had just shown him, and–like a lot of things that involved the shippeople–these thoughts travelled back to Barham. She had never shown, nor spoken of what Cornwallis had. Surely, she must have known those creatures existed within her. How could she not?
  107. Why didn’t she say anything about them then?
  109. Could she have thought they weren’t worth speaking of? No, Ben dismissed that possibility as soon as it cropped up. It was too big, too… weird. Was she afraid of what he–what others–might think? More probable, but only marginally so; Barham had never once struck Ben as being particularly enamoured with what any individual might think of her.
  111. Did she not think she could trust him with the information?
  113. “What are you doing?”
  115. The sudden voice snapped him out of his thoughts. He turned his head to find Bedouin standing behind him, hands folded, an unreadable expression on her dusky features. Ben got the impression that she was still wary of him after their first encounter.
  117. “Have you gone deaf?” Bedouin asked.
  119. “Yes.”
  121. Bedouin nodded in understanding. Seconds later, realisation dawned and she shot him a dirty look.
  123. “Oh, ha -ha-,” she growled. “Anyone ever tell you that you’re bloody hilarious?”
  125. “Actually, no. Now what’s the issue?”
  127. She cocked an eyebrow at him. “You’re the one with the issue. You were standing there for a while with a dumb look on your face. I called out to you five times.”
  129. There was a noticeable pause while Ben digested that information. Indeed, the corridor looked familiar; windows overlooking Devonport, a water cooler that sat adjacent to a room marked ‘B-12’. He hadn’t realised that he’d come to a standstill at all.
  131. “Things on my mind,” Ben said with a light shrug. Bedouin narrowed her eyes but said nothing.
  133. “Whatever, not like it matters to me.” She said with a shrug of her own and strolled on past. Ben watched her go, waiting until she was out of sight before he resumed his own journey.
  135. Darkness had fallen, but the lights kept much of Devonport Naval Base illuminated as surely as if it were still daytime. The Monmouth was docked and undergoing repairs to (or, more accurately, getting a replacement for) its five-incher, which had been ripped from its housing when something had collided with it. The rumours among the crew who had caught a glimpse of the scene argued that it was an Abyssal destroyer that the new arrival had quite literally batted away with the huge anchor he carried around with him.
  137. Taking into account Cornwallis’ thick build, along with the Hulls’ already unnatural strength, along with the events leading up to his recruitment, such as it was, Ben could well understand how that little tale had started to circulate.
  139. His mood dipped as he thought of the old battleship and what he’d shown him, and soured further as he recalled where that train of thought had led him.
  141. Barham.
  143. It didn’t seem to matter what he thought about these days, it all led back to her eventually. Months gone and he still couldn’t let go. He doubted that he ever would. It had been so sudden.
  145. So fucking unfair.
  147. He took a long, shaky breath and tried to force the well of roiling emotions to one side. He was here to–
  149. –avenge–
  151. –do a job, and that meant he had to snatch his head out of the clouds.
  153. “Something on your mind?”
  155. Ben was starting to get sick of people bugging him while he was thinking. He whirled around, intending to give the brave soul who’d interrupted his thoughts a scare, and came face to face with…
  157. “Oh. Warspite, right?”
  159. Warspite nodded, her blue-steel eyes locked onto his own. “Good, you do remember me,” she observed.
  161. “You tend to remember the folks who quiet a room down as soon as they stroll in,” Ben remarked dryly.
  163. A wry smile spread across Warspite’s face. “It helps having a reputation. Sometimes.”
  165. “I can’t say I’d know.”
  167. “Don’t put yourself down, Specialist,” Warspite hummed, “I’ve heard quite a lot about you.”
  169. “Yeah, from John, I remember.”
  171. “From him too, yes, but most of it came from my sister,” she told him, and after seeing his confused expression, she elaborated.
  173. “From Barham.”
  175. Ben felt himself tense up. Her again.
  177. “Walk with me, Specialist,” the warship said, opening her arm for Ben to slip his own through the gap.
  179. “If it’s a talk you want, I’ll warn you that I’m not a very chatty person,” Ben told her with a frown. He wasn’t entirely sure he was comfortable around Warspite. Something about the way she carried herself gnawed at him. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with her appearance; she was pretty fine by his standards. She had complete command over the other girls, and all told, she appeared by far the most level-headed, aside perhaps from Dainty. By all measures, Ben saw no immediate reason for him to dislike her, and yet he felt wary of her. He couldn’t put his finger on it, which only served to irk him all the more.
  181. “You’d leave a lady to walk alone unescorted through the night? I must say, I’m shocked.” There was a twinkle of amusement in her eyes; small, but unmistakably there.
  183. Ben pretended to take no notice and snorted.
  185. “Come on, we both know there’s nothing in this place that could possibly hurt -you-.”
  187. “Perhaps not,” Warspite admitted, “but that is beside the point. The girls are good company, but in large enough doses they exhaust even me.”
  189. “I can believe that.”
  191. “Mm, no doubt.”
  193. They walked in silence for a few minutes, Ben allowing Warspite to lead them along the dock, passing two Destroyers and Commander Bond’s Frigate, easily identifiable owing to the empty space where its forward gun should have occupied. A few of the sailors gave the pair a curious look, and Ben had to stare back before they returned to their work. He frowned; no doubt there’d be some unsavoury rumours he’d have to look forward to come tomorrow.
  195. “Ignore them,” Warspite said; her voice soft and placid.
  197. “You know they’ll talk, right?”
  199. She chuckled. It was a nice chuckle, low and velvety.
  201. “Do you really care what they might believe?” she asked him. “You know it’s unfounded.”
  203. “No,” Ben admitted. “But you might,” he added.
  205. Warspite stopped them there. They had wondered to the edge of a jetty, and now stood overlooking the River Tamar. The moon had begun its languid ascent, and there were no clouds for it to shy behind. Even had the lights of the Naval base suddenly flickered out, Ben had little doubt that he’d be able to make out every feature and fold of Warspite. She was easily the oldest-looking of the girls, but she was also possessed of a regal beauty that surely befit a venerable old warrior like herself; high cheekbones, smooth skin, piercing eyes. A small part of him noted that almost everything was in place for a lover’s midnight rendezvous. Were he a few years younger, he was all but certain his heart would be jackhammering its way out of his ribcage.
  207. And yet still, that feeling of unease persisted.
  209. Warspite released his arm and took a step towards the water. Ben waited as was only polite, watching her; studying her. He didn’t have much of a read on the old battleship, having spoken to her only once before, and not for very long. He knew she had, in her previous life (such as it was) earned more battle honours in both World Wars than any other ship in the Royal Navy. The other girls deferred to her, and some of the older RN sailors seemed to be in open awe of her.
  211. She’d also met and spoken with the King, which must have been nice.
  213. All in all then, Warspite was a pretty big deal.
  215. “I remember my sinking clearly,” she said. “I ran aground in 1947, two years after the bloodiest war we’d ever fought. I was to be scrapped at Faslane; the Empire was crumbling and plagued by debt, and with new technologies and advances, well… in the end, even had they not decommissioned me, I would never have been able to keep up.”
  217. Ben folded his arms, bracing himself for a story. Every one of the returned remembered their sinking. Some even remembered how it -felt-. He knew this. Barham had told him, and so had Manchester, Terror, Bonaventure, Defender, Havock…
  219. A thought occurred to him.
  221. All of his old battlegroup had been sunk in battle, fighting the good fight, so to speak. Warspite, on the other hand–an icon of the British military–had been too expensive to keep, and was sent to be ripped to pieces after all her years of service. Her running aground had hastened what had already been decreed. Ben didn’t know a whole lot about ships, but he imagined that, if someone had told him he was old and dried up and going to be euthanized after giving all he had for King and Country, he’d be pretty pissed off.
  223. And just like that, Ben knew why he felt so strangely wary of her.
  225. “So why’d you come back then?” he asked before even realising he’d opened his gob.
  227. Warspite turned to face him; her features briefly quizzical before she settled easily and quickly back into a more subdued expression he soon dubbed ‘tall, proud and ready for action’.
  229. “Come again? I don’t think I quite understand,” she said, in such a smooth way that told Ben that she completely understood.
  231. This time, Ben was in no mood to indulge the boat-person, “People wrote bloody -books- about you and your exploits; you’re one of the most famous warships on the planet and your guns have probably sent hundreds if not thousands of unlucky bastards screaming into the afterlife. And then not even two years after the dust has settled, they tell you that you’ve done a good job and run you off to be sent to the great scrapheap in the sky.”
  233. Warspite gave him a patient look, and when he sensed that she wasn’t about to say anything, he added, “I’m just saying, if that were me? I’d be fucking -angry-.”
  235. “Where are you going with this?” she wondered. Once more, Ben got the impression that she knew exactly what this was leading up to, and now his patience was running out.
  237. “Look, you know damn well what this is about. No one’s got any bleeding clue why you girls come back as… well, you, and why -they- come back as them, but there’s plenty of theories floating around. Bad deaths, combat resources squandered, never being allowed the chance to do what they were built to do. They’re almost like wraiths of a sort; taking out their misfortune or wrongdoing on humanity.”
  239. He paused to sniff and shrug his shoulders, “Nice little theory, only there’s enough reports going round of ships fitting those sort of circumstances who have come back fighting -for- us that it doesn’t quite fit. Not entirely.”
  241. He noticed the patient look on Warspite’s face start to slacken with boredom, an intentional move on her part, Ben deduced, and he decided to cut to the chase, “You were the Royal Navy’s pride and joy at one stage, and to show they cared, they carted you off and let you rot on a beach until you eventually just disintegrated away for near on seven years. I ask again: why did you come back to us? I don’t know how you come back, but surely it would have been easy to say ‘fuck those pricks’ and sign up for the other team, right?”
  243. Warspite was silent for a long time. Anyone who hadn’t been paying attention might have thought she was offended. Ben, however, was willing to bet that this was far from the first time the question had been poised to her and simply waited, arms folded, gaze unflinching.
  245. When she finally answered him, Ben wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly at first.
  247. “It was my duty.”
  249. He took a moment to blink.
  251. “What?”
  253. “Because it was my duty,” Warspite repeated, sounding just as… sincere the second time as she had the first.
  255. Ben shook his head slowly, “There’s got to be more to it than tha–”
  257. “No, there isn’t,” Warspite interrupted him, and this time, Ben heard real -heat- in her voice. “From the moment the first rivets were driven into what became my hull, to the day I was commissioned, to the day I ran aground, to the day I finally wasted away, and to the day I was reborn as something different, I have -always- been a warship of Britain’s Royal Navy.
  259. “Could I have ended up on the other side? Possible. Like the other girls, I recall nothing of -how- I came to be, but I -do- remember feeling as certainly as I do now, that my country was in peril, and that I was -needed-; and that it was my sworn duty to answer that need. Not once have I forgotten this.”
  261. Ben opened his mouth to speak, but Warspite wasn’t done just yet.
  263. “I have fought this enemy more times than I can feasibly count. I have bled them and been bled, repelled and been repulsed. I have engaged them at distance and in close quarters, and after so many battles, I can say that, while there are many things that separate us from them, the most crucial is our sense of duty. Those girls out there who seek to slaughter and kill have lost theirs; whether that is because they were coerced into letting go, or whether they gave it up willingly I cannot say.”
  265. She took a breath; Ben sensed she was coming to the end of her outspoken monologue, “For those who have wavered or have turned away from their most sacred duty. That is why I believe–why I -know- that I came back.” Her eyes burned with a quiet but intense heat. There would be no argument on this, Ben understood that much clearly.
  267. “Okay,” he said quietly, nodding and unfolding his arms.
  269. “I believe you.”
  271. Warspite inhaled through her nose, and when she breathed out, it was like a switch had been flipped. Gone was the quiet intensity, and in its place was the refined lady of the fleet he had been ‘escorting’ scant minutes beforehand.
  273. “Well, it’s getting a bit late,” she said, as if nothing had happened, “I do believe we should return to our quarters for an early night. No doubt Effingham will impress herself upon the enlisted at an unreasonable hour.”
  275. “Oh yeah, couldn’t you talk to her about that?” Ben inquired. “I spoke to the boss about it, but he didn’t seem to think there was a whole lot he could do about that.”
  277. Warspite shook her head, the corners of her lips twitching in amusement, “I’m afraid that once Effingham has set herself on a course of action, she is quite… persistent in carrying it out, as I’m sure you’ll learn in time.”
  279. “Fucking wonderful,” Ben said with a groan. “Wonder if I can get moved to a different barracks.”
  281. Warspite’s only response to that was to laugh. The sound echoed throughout the harbour, carrying across the base, and the lackadaisical waves that lapped at the jetty, and into the night sky.
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