Location: Panama Passage
The Harekaze had just passed through the straits, thanks in part to the pilot that had just departed the ship back onto a speedboat that awaited to take him back. The ship was now free to return to her mission rather than wait in line at the straits. For this the crew was thankful, yet somewhat disappointed. Seeing dozens and dozens of ships of many different sizes and types was an incredible learning opportunity. In fact each of them had homework assignments dealing with this event.
"So, what are you gonna write for the homework about the Panama Canal? Shiro-chan?"
"The importance of time saved to commercial traffic, the safety aspect of not having to cross the Straits of Magellan, and to military strategy."
"So common sense."
"Oh, well I was going to write about that too."
"It's what the assignment said to do," Mashiro sighed, knowing that they were just supposed to follow the outline and do as they were told to do and the essay would be as easy to write as could be.
"Oh wow, look at that!" Kuoko called out, pointing at a massive white vessel coming from behind the Harekaze.
The vessel was cruiser-sized, a white-hulled submarine with red painted onto the top deck and a red pair of conning towers, one on the bow and one larger one amidships. It had Chinese characters written on it and a stylized Chinese PRC flag on the peaked bow. The ship was a state of the art, with glass domed satellite dishes, insulated fiber optic antennae, and several dozen adult crew in blue nonmilitary uniforms were on deck, just enjoying the fine Caribbean weather. It was an imposing vessel, and was especially true seeing as it was just massive, being quite wide, having dimensions more akin to a large yacht.
"What is it?" Akeno asked, holding up her binoculars to ship that was catching up to them, disregarding numerous safety regulations in the crowded waters as the Harekaze made her course for the island of Jamaica.
"It's Chinese…" Mashiro pointed out, "The…" she tried to read the vessel's name, "Nothing in latin lettering, just a number, zero, two, two. I can't read Mandarin."
"Here it is," Kuoko said as she typed away at her pad, "It's the research submarine Xiangyanghong 022. It says that the sub's mission isn't widely known, but is believed to be used for biological and deep sea research."
"I don't like it, my mom-I mean Principal Munetani said to be wary of Chinese vessels. Captain, I recommend we keep our distance," Mashiro told Akeno, very, very serious about her assertion.
"Very well, Rin-chan, please steer away to the northeast, course zero-four-five," Akeno gave the order.
Now Kuoko's imagination returned to the forefront. She pulled herself into a 'bad guy pose' and deepened her voice.
"They suspect our cruel plan, we cannot afford to allow them to escape!" she declared, and then continued, "Prepare to submerge, we shall shadow the innocent students of the Harekaze and at our moment of choice we'll pounce!"
To accentuate this she "pounced" next to Shima, Mei, and Rin. The last of whom screamed loudly at being so scared. Shima and Mei almost jumped into one another's arms. Kuoko's delusions were beginning to hit home and frightening her fellow bridge crew.
"Miss Nosa, could you please refrain from scaring everyone?" Mashiro sighed and shook her head.
"They're just theories," Kuoko laughed, then darkened her voice once more, "Or are they…"
"Kuoko-san…" poor Rin said with a shaky voice.
"Oh, sorry Rin-san, I didn't mean to scare you," Kuoko began profusely apologizing.
"It's okay, most things scare Rin-san," Mei laughed, wrapping an arm around their helmsman, who blushed slightly.
"It's-it's true, I'm not very brave," Rin sighed, sheepishly smiling.
"It's okay Rin-chan," Akeno replied, looking at the brunette with a reassuring smile, "You've proved that you can be brave when we need you. Like when we steered in front of the Musashi, you never left your station."
"Yep, she did well," Mei now decided to give Rin a noogie, rubbing her knuckles on top of Rin's head for a few seconds.
"You all did," Akeno added, and Shima stopped, and confidently leaned back, throwing her hands behind her head.
"Yeah, I guess the torpedo crew did get a one hundred percent hit rate," she smirked.
"Aye," Shima nodded.
"Which is why we're on our way to be an exchange ship," Mashiro told them, "The performance of the ship and crew has garnered a great deal of attention. But don't get comfortable, the ships we're going to sail with and skirmish with are some of the most formidable in the world."
"The fastest student ships in the world are the French Fantasque-Class, they can make forty-five knots at flank speed and they and the Mogador-Class are the largest destroyer class we'll ever see," Kuoko informed them, showing the pictures of the ships on her datapad.
"Then there's the American student fleets, there's just so many of them…" Mashiro sighed, "Plus, the American and European ships are all coed, except for the submarines, which are all crewed by boys."
"You mean when we meet the Spee they'll have boys on board?" Akeno asked.
"Yes, when the ships of the European and American fleets send an exchange ship they crew it with either boys or girls depending on the school they're going to," Mashiro responded, "You were all told that many boys will try to…make us their girlfriends…" she trailed off, somewhat embarrassed to say such a thing.
"Like any of them will be up to my standards," Shima laughed, drawing the attention of all of the bridge personnel, "What?"
"You've thought about this already?" Kuoko responded.
"My mom told me what to look for in a suitor, he must smart, funny, polite, and above all caring," Shima nonchalantly relayed, "Plus, we won't be around any of them long enough for a boy to check all those boxes right? So why worry about boyfriends when we can just make friends right?"
There were some nods of agreement. This was solid logic, no boys were going to be allowed to stay aboard the Harekaze for any stretch of time at all except for the obvious-to-identify emergency that was less than likely to occur as well as the occasional ship visit and tours that were pretty standard for all sides and had an academic connotation to them. The ships that the Harekaze crew were to meet at Port Royale were the destroyers of the French student squadron, six of the large and super-fast Fantasque-Class Destroyers led by a two more heavily armed Mogador-Class. There they'd then wait for the larger French student ships, the Battleships Dunkurque, Strasbourg, and Richelieu, the heavy cruisers Suffren and Foche, the light cruisers Gloire, La Galissoniere, and Montcalm, and the hospital ship Pasteur. Escorting them were three Aquitaine-Class Frigates, their instructor ships. Below the surface four submarines including the Surcouf would bring up the rear along with contractor-manned oilers and supply ships, the French school didn't have enough students nor did the French fleet of the past even have their own support fleet like most other schools did. But they did have a seaplane tender, the Commandante Teste with its three drone blimps, a safer and more cost-effective aircraft for students to train with, that were restricted to reconnaissance purposes for safety.
Here, they'd partake in annual wargames against the American Gulf Coast Maritime Academy. The fleet there was impressive, three impressive battleships, the Iowa, the Indiana, the South Dakota, and a battlecruiser, the Alaska were supported by a drone-equipped fleet carrier, the Essex, and two escort carriers, the Tripoli and the Manila Bay, each having numerous blimp drones They had an escort fleet of four heavy cruisers, six light cruisers, and eighteen destroyers with eight submarines below the surface and sixteen support ships. The French fleet was immensely outnumbered and equally outgunned, but it was just their turn, according to research that Kuoko had done it had been the Italian fleet that had taken the beating from the American fleet last semester here in their home waters.
Akeno had been told of what was probably going to occur. Winning the wargames was not going to be much of a possibility. But the real purpose of the wargames was the teaching of teamwork within the ship and with other ships, training communications skills, analysis, and of course seamanship. A large amount of experience would be gained especially when it came to navigating waters crowded with fishing boats, cruise ships, and many islands with shallow reefs. It would a be a true test of their baser skills and training, with the actual 'battle' being secondary, a means towards training basic skills. Fomenting competitiveness was just another clever tactic towards sharpening focus and it instilled quite a bit of school pride which for Western schools was a big deal. The Japanese schools just sort of entertained these aggressive maneuvers.
"Captain, we're clear of the main traffic," Mashiro said once the ship had left the crowded waters.
"Okay, we can resume standard watch times," Akeno nodded, "Whose has the bridge?"
"Oh, it's my watch!" Mei raised her hand, "Mayumi-san! You're up!"
"Is it my turn to man the helm?" the tall raven-haired tanned girl asked, poking her head in from the bridge wing.
"Yes, you and Ms. Irizaki have the bridge until noon. Stay clear of that Chinese research submarine, standard practice," Mashiro told the two.
"Oh, are they following us Captain?" Mayumi asked as Rin gave up her spot at the helm.
"No, probably not Mayumi-chan," Akeno shook her head, "Have a good watch, I'll be back for my watch to relieve you after lunch."
"See you in a little bit Captain!" Mei responded pleasantly.
"So what do you think is for lunch?" Akeno asked as she passed the classroom, but Mashiro went in and snatched the back of Akeno's shirt.
"No you don't, we're writing our report."
Two Hours Later, Yokosuka Girls High School
The ships of the student fleet were at sea, only the support ships were in port, restocking from their mission to get the Harekaze to Alaska. Principal Munetani was currently sitting at her desk, reading over the first reports from maneuvers with the squadron. Things had gone well, no damage, no incidents, the Musashi had led the other ships well, proving its crew's skill and talent. But her focus was broken when a video call rang on her desktop.
It was from the Ministry of Education, which was not at all unexpected nowadays, especially after what had happened with the RAT Virus. The students had all been inoculated from inadvertent exposure, seeing as supposedly one of the containers from the research ship had not been located, it was presumed lost by now, seeing as the gerbil-hybrid would have run out of food and water by now and the container would have sunk, never to be found again. But such as with all major incidents they didn't expect the problems to go away, and Principal Munetani was constantly being demanded to give report after report and attend hearing after hearing in ministry after ministry. It was beginning to get tiresome.
"This is Principal Munetani," she said, and saw the highly concerned face of the Minister of Education looking back at her.
"Principal Munetani, how are you?"
"I am well Minister, how can I help you?" she asked, cracking a pilot smile.
"Are you alone?"
"Good, it has come to my attention from the Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office that one of your student ships' names has repeatedly come up in transmissions to Beijing. We can't know for certain if the Harekaze is in danger, but the belief of OIRO is that the Harekaze is not. We know that she has traversed the Panama Passage into the Caribbean," the man said quietly, "And a single Chinese research submarine passed shortly behind her into the Caribbean. It could be coincidence, but we figured it best to alert you."
"And what is to be done then Minister?"
"They have stated that we in the Education Ministry are to do nothing to warn the Harekaze, if we bring her back or order an escort the Intelligence people stated that it could tip off Beijing and they may change their codes. Or worse, force them to action and if it is the Harekaze it may mean trouble with her being alone right now according to our live GPS."
"So we don't do anything?" she asked.
"Not directly to the Harekaze. The government wants you to send a physical message to Il Longue's student ship, the Jean Bart, one that they will then transmit to their own school, they have instructor frigates near the Harekaze in Guadeloupe. One should be able to meet them in Jamaica and protect them. The Harekaze should be safe by then with the French student and instructor squadron around them. We were told that the Chinese wouldn't be listening to the French the same they listen to us according to the intelligence branch," the Minister responded.
"If there is a danger that means one thing. This has to be done with the utmost secrecy, no transmissions on our end to the Harekaze. If they're actually being watched it has to be our French colleagues who do the communicating," Principal Munetani replied.
"Then I should leave you to it. The uh…the Harekaze knows the protocol with Chinese government ships does it not?"
"My daughter is aboard as Deputy Captain, she is all too aware of protocol, stay away. If approached contact the school immediately," she responded, "Then it is up to the government to deal with the situation and the ship is to continue on its course and not to make sort of aggressive moves except in self-defense. I helped write that protocol Minister."
"Good so that should be it from me then, protect our students Principal," the man implored one last time and closed the video call.
Now Principal Munetani allowed herself to lean back and sigh. Her heart was beating a thousand times a minute. Her daughter was, theoretically in harms way. Why they didn't know. But there were indications it had something to do with the Chinese. And with the Chinese there was no telling what they were willing to do to get what it was they wanted. The worst part about that was that they didn't know what the Chinese were even talking about. It was potentially plausible that the word Harekaze was code for something, and didn't have anything to do with that little destroyer halfway around the world at all. For now, there was nothing to do but be cautious. She penned her letter on the computer, then translated it to French and printed it, sealed it in an envelope with a great big "FOR COMMUNICATION PERSONNEL ONLY" written on the envelope she put it in French on the front and signed her name. She stood up and walked to the dock, where the Mamiya was currently awaiting orders before sailing.
"Captain Fujita," the older woman called out as she got to the dock and saw the young captain signing the last of her transfer papers, "We need you to hand this letter, in person and sealed, to the communications officer aboard the Jean Bart. It is not to leave your possession or be opened until then. Tell her to transmit this as soon as she opens it. You sail immediately, they'll meet you halfway. Understand Captain?"
"Y-yes Munetani-senpai, I understand," the young captain agreed and bowed.
Eight Hours Later, Petrel Islands
The ship was pulling into the small island chain and could see that it was indeed true, the Caribbean Sea had shrunk. Whereas in the Pacific the water level relative to the land had risen considerably the Caribbean's islands had grown in size, and even shallower reefs had turned into islands themselves. This was the case for the former reef system turned island chain called the Petrel Islands. They were completely covered now in white sands with palm trees covering most of the islands' interiors. It was now an ideal Caribbean destination. This was the Harekaze's crew's impression as well.
Most of the crew were on deck in their swimsuits with towels around their necks along with a lot of water noodles, squirt guns, chairs, bags, and inflatables. Excitement was looming for the girls of the ship, as they had just learned that they'd arrived early, a whole day in fact. Which meant free time for themselves after what had been a swamp of course work over the past few days. The ship's canvas shades were up, covering the decks in welcome relief from the day's sun. But now it was getting close to sunset. Swimming wasn't looking very attractive, especially when the ship finally dropped anchor.
Below the ship they saw in the shallow waters the dark outlines of reef sharks, lots of them just beginning to rise from their day of slumber for their hunting time.
"Maybe this place isn't so great for swimming…" Hikari Ogasawara mumbled as she and her fellow artillery personnel looked over the railing.
"Yeah…I guess not, look at them all. There's so many," Heki Junko replied with awe.
"The Caribbean is full of sharks, I read it on the internet. They have Hammerheads, Bull Sharks, Tiger Sharks, and even Great Whites all over these waters," Michiru Takeda added some information to the mix.
"Wow…now I really don't want to swim…" Hikari mumbled in a terrified manner, leaning away from the railing, lest one of those maneater species somehow jump at them.
The crew's musings were interrupted by a few words that everyone recognized that began going around. "Person" and "beach" among them. They all scanned the pristine white beach then spied it, a khaki shape on the sand across the bay from the Harekaze and her crew. But for those who examined closer it wasn't one person that was laying on the beach, it was two. Those who had good enough eyes were able to see that neither of them was moving. This was what raised the alarm for the bridge, who had binoculars and could see this distressing sight.
"All hands! Get a boat to the beach, hurry!" Captain Misaki called out from the port side bridge wing, and the crew now started scrambling, "Someone get Miss Minami-san!"
The ship's crew jumped into action. Many of the girls first ran to put on something over their swimsuits, just in case the one or both were of the male variety. Soon one of the Harekaze's launches was lowered over the side and a half dozen of her crew were motoring towards the beach under the leadership of Mashiro. As the boat approached the beach she recognized the uniform, it was an American uniform with an orange life preserver in front of them both on the sand. But there was more.
"Carefully now," Mashiro told their driver who slowed to beach the launch up against the sand gently and the five other girls, all members of Gunnery, jumped out and ran to the two forms, now realizing one was a girl with a blonde ponytail and the other was a red-haired boy, "Are they alive?" she asked.
Heki reached over and touched the girl's neck gently, praying for a pulse.
"So's the boy!" Hikari added, holding the boy's wrist.
"Wow, they're tiny," Ritsuko Matsunaga said as they kneeled down next to them, and turned the boy over to face up and saw he had been laying on a blue baseball hat with his ship's name and silhouette below the name of his school written in English. But missing on their uniforms were nametags, like normal American uniforms possessed.
"They're Middle Schoolers," Mashiro said, picking up the wet cap and brushing the sand from it, "They're from the…Texas Coast Middle School, home of the…USTS Texas. A dreadnought!"
"That's right, American middle schools don't stay on land, they have ships of their own," Heki said as they rolled the girl over onto her back and they saw that both of the two kids were indeed quite young, perhaps only eleven or twelve years old.
"They're very badly sunburned, they must have been on the water a long time," Mashiro said, brushing a hand softly against the girl's cheek, pushing a few strands of hair away, eliciting an unconscious groan, the first noise either of them made, "Come on, let's get them back to the ship."
Basket stretchers were brought out for both of the poor kids had life preservers tied around their necks and bodies as per safety protocol and then they were placed on board the launch and Satoko Katsuta, the pilot, motored them back to the ship. Waiting there were more concerned crew, ready to lend assistance. It didn't take long for the ship's crane to lift the two stretchers into the waiting arms of the Harekaze's crew where Minami Kaburagi, the ship's underage medical officer, was waiting. It didn't take her long to figure out what needed to be done.
"Well Minami-san?" Akeno asked as the two were taken below decks.
"They're badly dehydrated, sunburned, and are completely exhausted captain. I will administer IV's and check for additional injuries. I shall alert you when my examination is complete."
"Thank you, do your best. Shiro-san," Akeno said quickly.
"We need to search for any others. They may not be alone, we should use the skippers to search the other island."
"I agree. We should also contact our school and the French school ships, they should be almost here to rendezvous with us, maybe they can conduct a search for anyone else while we scour the islands."
"Okay, everyone, I'm sorry to cut our break short but we're now going to search and rescue stations!"
Well, another one in the books. Hopefully everyone is enjoying it, because I am. Next story in line is "Soldiers of the Republic" but I may finish up a separate story's first chapter and post it in the meantime. It's been a fandom I've wanted to write for for some time, Army Men Sarge's Heroes. It's gonna be a good one, I've been looking forward to it for some time.
Next Chapter Preview: What's happened here, and where's the Texas?