AN: Research continues. So. Much. Research. My poor head. I swear letter soup, I'm looking up military bases and industry as well as security information for a completely benign reason.
AN2: Holy fucking hell, it's three days later and I'm still doing more research. Someone send for a lifeboat before the Chengdu's the Mig's and the A-,B-,F-'s drown me. Shenyang? Sukhoi? How many of these are there?
AN3: My poor head.
AN4: This wasn't supposed to be this long. Tell me if it feels bloated.

Interlude II: Angels

Foreword: There are a lot of people who read stuff casually, without thinking much about it. That is normal and fine. This is for them. I don't want those who don't think about things too deeply, or don't gather hints and consider deeper implications, to get the idea this is a much darker work than it is. At the same time, I don't want to actually spoil things for the people who do read deeply. So if you want to know WTF, I'll ask you to wait a day to see if others figure it out and bring it up in thread, or until after the next chapter for the next thread talk.

WOG: The Abyss does not casually go around and kill millions, for fun. They do not enjoy slaughtering humans and baring those that have gone mad, don't randomly slaughter humans at all, any more than you go around slaughtering ants. If the ants don't bother you, you don't bother them.

Trigger Warnings: Some Gore, burning alive, suicide, mental fuckery, drug use and mass casualties. Mentions of torture. Animal abuse.

Part 1: Shanghai

"Come on Stan, move it. We're going to be late!" the young reporter said over her shoulder as her sensible boots hit the concrete in the underground parking garage.

Being a war correspondent in Beijing was not where Sara thought her career would take her, but here she was. She hadn't meant to be exiled from the US but investigative reporters were not welcome by the US government after one of them blew open the story of the century in the middle of a war for survival.

The young twenty something (don't you know it's rude to ask a lady her age?) professional reached back into their van to grab her own bag of essentials.

"I'm going, I'm going. Sheesh. You'd think they'd give us more time. Why wake us up at two AM?" Stan the camera man grumbled.

"Microphone, check."
"Compact mirror and makeup, check."
"Press pass, check".

"That's work stuff covered."

"Overnight bag if we get stuck again, check."
"Rice wine if I need to grease some wheels, check

"You got everything?" Sara asked.
"Extra batteries, check."
"Packed lunch, no check."

But she'd survive on an empty stomach if there was nothing on offer.
"Mom and Dad didn't raise a brat."

Her hand strayed to the black ribbon in her curly hair, reassuring her it was still there.

"I got it. I got it. Stop hounding me Sarah. I know my damn job." the cameraman complained.
"But you can't remember my name. Perks of a new assignment, I guess."

• • •

Sara was dragging a camera case. Because of course she was. Of course her professional camera man brought his AP press pass but took last week's PLA pass, not the new one. To be fair, the new passes had come in yesterday, but still.

"Do you know where the international press room is?" a man's voice asked from behind.
Sara checked him over. European, probably a few years younger than her, fresh out of college.

"Trade you" she offered with a smirk. He only had a laptop case on him.
He took a step back, before drawing himself up, pompously.

"It will take more than directions to get manual labor out of Julien Claes." he said with a bad French accent, leaning down to pick up the camera bag, with some effort.

"I must also insist on your name, Mademoiselle."

Sara snorted, but flashed him her press pass. "You got a name, Frenchy?"

He readjusted the unfamiliar load, then replied with a much softer accent:
"Frenchy? I've heard Americans are blunt, but Miss you take the cake." he said, shaking his head.

"Hey!" Sara protested, just a bit affronted and more than a bit amused.
"I'll have you know I had to work on blunting my tongue or I'd have cut you by now."
"Oh god, why would I say that?"

His own smile grew amused as he graciously let her get away with that. After a few seconds of embarrassing silence he extended an olive branch.

"Peace then? I am Belgian if you must know." he murmured.
"Right back at you." she said acerbically. Sara did not have time for this, not in the middle of a war.
"What?" her current camera man asked, confused.

Right, she actually needed someone to help her. "Fuck."
"I said I'm Canadian." Sara corrected.

Well she was, now anyway. It was technically true.
He gave her a skeptical look. "Sorry."

Except he didn't sound sorry. He sounded like a mountie from a Hollywood film.
It startled a laugh out of her.

She turned to face him straight on: "Are you for real?"

He pinched himself with his free hand, which caused the laptop bag that was on that shoulder to slide off said shoulder. Chasing that nearly delivered her expensive TV camera to the floor, but he managed to correct his balance.

"I don't think I'm dreaming" he answered with a wide smile, completely unembarrassed.
Sara kind of wanted to punch him. She found herself smiling back.

• • •

Soldiers banging on your door at 2 AM means the story is imminent, right? No.

Contrary to all the rushing to get there, they'd gotten on site, set up the camera and then twiddled their thumbs for almost three hours before things started happening.

The military personnel manning the consoles had no interest in entertaining the embedded journalists, but it could have been better and worse. For one, the company was tolerable, if dangerous in another way. For another, they were in the joint task force bunker. They'd only see the bits of ground fighting up close the PLA fed them, but they didn't have to put up with being extra cautious and polite. The PLA wouldn't disappear them, those days were long gone, but they'd pull their credentials in a heartbeat.

And Sara didn't want fresh blood here getting her involved in an incident that would have them cooling their asses in a hotel prison for a month or three, if he heard or said the wrong thing.

"We are all fighting the same monsters in the end," Sara thought, her hand unconsciously rubbing the long black ribbon running down her back.
"It would be pretty shitty not to give them some leeway when people are dying out there."

And the dying was just about ready to start, if the sudden presence of brass in the command center was any clue. She got her mike ready and waved Claes to action. At least they'd used the time to get him a bit familiar with the model.

"Hopefully this works. I'd hate to fuck up on my first day in the capital. Fuck you Stan, mister "I'm a professional camera man". When the home office hears about this, you're unemployed is what you are. You knew we were on call, asshole."

They started rolling as the messages began pouring in from the U2-ABW high altitude reconnaissance aircraft on station above Shanghai.

• •

"Eagle One, this is Eagle base, how're you holding up?"
"Read you loud and clear, Eagle base. Be advised, still no Candle base."

"Candle is imminent Eagle One. Start warming her up for our friends down below."
"Rodger that. Warming her up. Lenses nominal."

"Mating to Eastern Theater Command. Exotics online. T-4 hours and counting. Feeds are live. I repeat: Feeds are live. Confirm?"
"Confirm, feeds are live Eagle One."

• •
"Sacré dieu!" Claes cursed.
"Never seen one from this angle? Or is it too close?" Sara asked, trying not to think about it.

The main screen, a wall to wall installation, was filled with the image of a swirling hurricane seen from above. Lightning strikes sparked within it. One or several with each breath. The clouds were dark and heavy, broiling, the rain constant, never-ending. The storm radiated hate. It had parked itself over Shanghai for four months, almost a hundred miles wide and just looking at it made her eyes itch. Sara put on her glasses, but they didn't help. Much.

"Spooky Abyssal Bullshit."

• •

"You're dropping altitude Eagle One."
"Getting a better look, base." the pilot responded, laconically.
Like he'd done dozens of times on any other day, any other flight.

"Eagle One" the brass cut in, in a calm, relaxed tone.
"If I find a single feather below angels sixty-two today, you'll be mucking latrines for the rest of the war."

• •

"Angels?" Claes whispered.
"Lingo. Thousand feet."

His eyes clouded for a moment.
"That's almost nineteen kilometers." Claes gasped. "Why?"

"Oh to be young and innocent." Sara remembered. She repeated the phrase her senior correspondent had told her.
"Because it's bullshit." she groused. "Just watch the lightning."

The silence had lingered over the channel.
"Sir?" choked out a very confused and mortified airman, as Eagle One climbed back to altitude.

The answer arrived on his screen. The operating theater exploded. What was a few tentatively marked positions for the enemy bloomed to life as signal after signal came online.

It started at the edge of the storm, in Nantong harbor. The river off Nantong exploded into a pillar of light, biting into the edge of the hurricane as friendlies from the Japanese Kanmusu Corps revealed themselves from the warehouses.

But that was nothing to the thousands of friendly PLA contacts that popped out of nowhere all over the peninsula at that same edge, having hidden in the towns nearby. Even as the hurricane's diameter was stymied by the pillar of light's resistance, every signal on the ground started advancing into the shrinking storm.

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, base?" the shaken pilot asked.
"Candle, Eagle One. That's Candle. Haven't you been looking for it for weeks?" the flight officer drily replied.
"Stay on station. Stay out of the discus, Eagle One. Over." he finished.

"What discus?" her junior asked Sara.

On a side screen they could see the pilot in his cockpit reach over and lay his hand over the picture of a family taped to his console. The pilot's gloved hand clenched into a fist, voice firming and he drew up in his seat.
"Rodger that. Today we play for all the marbles base. Out." he said, as unyielding as his air-frame.

"It's an ellipse a bit wider than the eye. Damaging EM interference that can reach all the way up to the upper orbits." Sara elaborated absentmindedly, checking that all her feeds were rolling.

"In a frame that modern; that fancy? He won't have to come down to the lightning. He touches it he fries."
Then what Claes was asking caught up with her.

"What did you think happened to most of the satellites?" Sara asked in disbelief as her eyes itched and the fingers not holding the mike fretted away at her ribbon. On the screens hundreds of camouflaged field guns and tank cannons opened up, firing into the storm.

• • •

Min Yang found the Dragons to be completely unlike his expectations. The army, any army, needed a strict form of discipline. To secure the chain of command and ensure orders would be followed under fire. He'd experienced the same in the regular battalions and trained as his squad's machine-gunner. But he'd been offered a chance to volunteer for The Dragons, not two months into his specialist training. He thanked his family for all they had thought him, for surely their contributions to his upbringing were what made him stand out enough to be so noticed.

Now, after four more months of training with the bulky equipment, it had begun to feel like a second skin, even as he marveled at the ease his fellows moved in it. While most of his poor fellows had to settle for what food could be supplied, the Dragons ate like senior party officials. They needed it to build bodies capable of carrying their kits. Min Yang was happy to now count himself among their numbers, even if he was the most junior among them.

Even if they could be terribly casual and disrespectful to those outside their chain of command.

"I can't help you Captain, my men are using all the connections." The First Lieutenant of the Dragons apologized.
"But surely you can spare a few for worthy heroes of the party to speak to their families on the eve of battle?" the higher officer pressed, his eyes watching the ordinary Dragons lounging about their common room, joking and laughing, completely ignoring him.

"No Captain." his commanding officer replied, voice laced with sympathy. It was a harsh, but simple truth. There were never enough lines on the front. Another man came off the row of screens in the back and another quickly took his place. Min Yang was third in line now.

"That is unfortunate, First Lieutenant. Truly unfortunate." the Captain promised.
"Any misfortune will be purged in fields of fire, Captain." their leader solemnly rebutted.

That had the Captain filching. His eyes rechecking the casual positions of the men. Noticing the singing tension beneath, as each one savored every taste, every breath. Everyone but Min Yang, who was new. Min Yang had to strain his ears to hear the last exchange.

"Today?" the Captain quietly asked.
"Today." his Lieutenant confirmed.
Some of the color left the Captain's face.
"Thank you for the warning."

The Captain's hand fell on his leader's shoulder.
"For the Dream of a better world." he intoned with a grave, but hopeful smile.
"Free from the Abyss." Lieutenant Li finished, smiling himself.

They parted as another man cleared the computer station.
Second in line, now.

• • •

"Look, it's Min. Hi Min!" Fa Yang cheered from the screen.
"Good Day, Fa. I am happy to see you." Min Yang replied, trying to keep a stony face, appropriate to the gravity of this moment.

"Uh-ah. None of that Min. You're always so serious. Isn't this a time to be with your family?" Fa Yang asked with a mischievous smile, nervously washing her hands before her.
"I am a soldier of the People's Republic. We must maintain a respectable mien at all times."

A long and loud burp filled silenced the talk of the other soldiers behind him for a moment, before they broke out in laughter. Min Yang could feel his face heating up. He did not understand why the honorable Dragons were as such this day. They were less formal certainly, but today it was as if… he kept that thought well away. It would not do to concern his family unduly. They worried enough already.

"How go your studies?" That was a safe topic. As his older sister launched into a retelling of all the wonders learning and working as a graduated mechanical engineer in the engine factories he carefully looked her over. Fa Yang looked…better. Even hidden by her flowing robes what he could see of her face and hands were far firmer, supple.

Fa Yang did not tire after a few minutes and the shadows of the troubles that had driven him to volunteer were far behind her. A son in the Dragons and a daughter graduating to the factories had done well for his family. Not all were so fortunate.

"Thank the ancestors we've made it through." Min Yang sent, in gratitude.

"Is that Min?" his father's voice interrupted from somewhere beyond the screen. This? This is what he was fighting for, Min Yang grew certain again, as his family flooded into the room in their home. Those monsters would pay.

• • •

The alarms started ringing. The trumpets came right after them as speakers started blasting "March of the Volunteers"

Men were running outside, rallying to transports, rushing to battle. The full might of the PLA emerging from bunkers and tunnels slowly dug over months and moved under cover of night, until they had arrived at the very edge of the storm. The Dragons moved slowly, confidently. Like they'd done it all their lives. Min Yang felt ashamed that his hands were shaking. He'd gone to battle before, but never like this, into the storm. Everyone knew the stories. This was a Princess. This was Shanghai. He was a Dragon now.

Heavy hands landed on each shoulder from his squad mates.
"You were chosen for this Min Yang. If you cannot believe in yourself, do not insult our own judgments. You'll do well." they said.

Each member reached into their personal lockers, pulling out metal boxes that had been closed weeks ago, and since left unopened. Their personal phones were reassembled, as each removed effects and photos and left them on the table, ready to dial. Men ran past their quarters as the Dragons readied for war. They'd all stayed in their under-suits, but now each was helped by his or her partner into their bulky gear. Waterproof, fire-resistant and fully body, resistant to tearing and shrapnel. With a separate air supply that could last up to an hour and a solid gas masks and visors to shield them from the wind and rain. A ceremonial hammer worn on the belt for men, a sickle for the women.

Finally, their tanks and flamethrowers. Min Yang, as the youngest, went around the table and hit dial on each phone. They would wait there for them, together. Should any return to tell their families what had happened to their sons and daughters. If none did, another Dragon squad would be along to tell them that too, as they all knew to do if fortune smiled on them, and they were the ones to return. Finally, the twelve heavily armed and armored Dragons stomped out of their bunker, their only compromise to traditional warfare a single pistol with one magazine.

They piled into their armored personal carrier to a backdrop of fire and rain, as the endless barrage pummeled the storm with an endless stream of napalm, pushing it back further, denting the cyclone inward. Few shells made it to the ground, most detonating in the air and all the flames were sucked up by the wind and rain, dying somewhere deep within. As the vehicle started, each man took a small juice box and drank deeply. The bitter medicine would help.

Min Yang looked to the slot on his sleeve, on the forearm. There was a plastic see through slit there. Each soldier had one. Min had chosen Fa Yang for his. She looked at him from there, smiling happily on the day of being accepted to university. Bright and hale. As the medicine worked its way through his system, the mix of sedatives and euphoric smoothing away negative thought, he focused on their dream as he'd been trained.

On The Dream. Of a World without the Abyss. Wouldn't it be beautiful?

• • •

Ordinary squads led the way in trucks, rapidly deploying in the muddy and soaked ground won by Candle and the endless stream of fire. Each man carried a pistol, a powerful and rugged flashlight, a Molotov made with kerosene and a wooden spear. The Americans had paid dearly for the first lessons in the war and many others had paid since.

They'd had years of fighting for their shores to adapt equipment and doctrine. The simple truth was, ordinary guns were useless against the Abyss. But it didn't mean there wasn't a use for many modern tools of war, if applied properly. Like the helicopters flying over-watch while the storm was suppressed.

Each man stabbed the soil, methodically searching it in lines for buried Crawlers, once they arrived at the preplanned positions. Clearing fields for the incoming SPG and towed guns.

Four soldiers on each squad set up perimeter anti-tank mines, further thickened by crates dropping additional supplies from transport helicopters. Four others watched on alert with their own anti-tank charges in hand. They looked like they were holding particularly top heavy, large black frying pans. The helicopters wouldn't be much help if one of the spear found a target. Anything that could hurt it would kill them too.

A pair of squad specialists would set up a Type 54 HMG on a tripod, with extra cases of ammo belts, angling the piece towards the sky. An incendiary RPG was the other specialist weapon in each squad and they sought higher ground.

Soon, the artillery started arriving as other APC's carrying scouts plunged into the storm itself. The gun crews flew into a flurry of motion, setting up camouflage netting and shelter from the storm to break up the shapes and hide the guns from aerial assault, while the men dug in. Combat engineers dragged optical cable lines to forward positions, connecting them to hand held flashlights with shutters under command of Morse code clickers, for use by battery commanders. A few Drakes were scattered among the camps, wielding the same napalm flamethrowers as the Dragons, but without their extensive protective gear. They were to hold ground, not charge the enemy.

As the Dragon amphibious transports and their support squads reached the half-way point of the newly freed land, the order ripped through the lines. Flares lit up the outside of the storm. The pillar of light, already weakened, fell. The guns falling silent. Scouts emerged from the edge to give their final spotting reports over radio. Close air support retreated. Within a minute the storm front began to advance, until it had swallowed the forward positions. But they were under the storm wall now, the wind and rain howling all around them. This time, when the artillery opened up on the Abyssal domes in the center of the storm? Fire fell on Shanghai itself.

With the pillar silenced? Shanghai fell upon them.

• • •

The rain and the wind made visibility difficult, but it wasn't falling so hard to limit it, rather it was hard to keep looking into the storm and not just seek shelter. For the artillery crews, the canvas they had raised and half buried now served them well, but every man not manning a piece was standing well outside with their flashlights at the ready, scanning the terrain, buildings and sky around them. Looking for the enemy.

So close to the returned edge of the storm, Eagle One actually could see them all mostly clearly through the use of cutting edge observation telescopes, lit up by the lights and the fire of cannons. So could Sara and Claes.

"I need those recordings."

"(Pests in my home.)"
The voice that came out of the speakers was completely incomprehensible and painful to the ear, like the scratching of innumerable claws on a steel floor, filled with slime, blubber and malice. Overflowing with hate, not for some reason, but merely because it was and just hearing it made most men and women shudder.

Even as it somehow sounded bored, as if the entire might of the PLA was beneath it. A chore, spilled rice that ants had gotten into.

The first abyssal tank emerged from under the carriage of a wrecked truck on the highway. The armadillo was barely 30cm(1') tall and almost 55cm(1'9') long and immediately marked by Eagle One. But radio stopped at the storm wall, let alone the integrated information sphere that existed in modern combat. By the time they could have warned the people on the ground, the damn things were already moving. Sara's fingers clenched around black fabric, painfully.

In the wind and rain, under the dark clouds in its grey shell? It was a distant, small blur moving among the wrecked town. Another dug itself out of the mud, just upstream from one of the fieldpieces, outside the cleared ground. Others emerged from gardens, buildings, parking garages, ponds, bushes, rabbit burrows. All dutifully marked by the computers.

All over the surrounding fields and buildings, the armadillo's emerged with tiny turrets on top. They accelerated to about 40km/h(25mph) and their cute, tiny turrets spat tiny shells with little burps of light that would sound like thunder up close. Those tiny shells vaporized soldiers, detonated mines and blew up field pieces. Invisible lines of machinegun rounds with no tracers scythed through the men.

"Come on, come on, spot them damn it."

"Crawlers!" the soldiers warned, the screams echoing up and down the lines loud enough that Sara could almost hear it. For in her foolish youth she'd braved a storm like that once-
"Never again"
-and she knew how ugly it was about to get.

Once upon a time, tanks were faced with tanks. They'd learned better. RPG's readied themselves, as beams of light chased each tiny flash of fire, following the thunder of guns through the storm. As dozens, hundreds of flashlights tried to find and keep the damn things in sight and illuminated for the people who could actually hurt them as the voices of the dead and the dying filled the miserable, muddy fields.

Sara and Claes watched in silent pain as position after position disappeared in fire and explosions. Little pops, distant flashes of light marked places where some of the little terrors found their deaths testing the minefields and every now and again, a lick of fire would mark an RPG's scoring a direct hit. Soon confirmed by Molotov's from the infantry, just in case.

But most? Most had to be killed up close.

• • •

Min Yang listened in to their advance over the endless crackle of his radio. Even sticking together, there was a constant crackling in his ear, somewhere between static and some demented person laughing. He tried not to think about the rain. It hurt to consider all the water falling around them, its threat and the lost potential. The endless patter ringing on the roof. Their vehicle had risen and fallen, navigating washed out roads and ditches dug by relentless streams, struggling through persistent mud. But finally, the combat engineers and navy storm scouts running ahead of them had run into the enemy.

"Dragons, deploy!" their squad sergeant ordered. As the back doors opened they rushed out into the rain. It had no clear direction, falling up and down and sideways, driven by the wind among the buildings. A wall of air nearly toppled Min Yang not two steps out the doors. Fortunately, this segment of road had survived so he managed not to topple, trying to keep up with his elders. A hand grabbed him by the elbow and he knew his partner. Orders ringing in his ears, Min Yang joined the others in spreading out and advancing on the blue flares hanging in the ski in their path.

His partner flinched at any sound that wasn't of the storm and flooded no less than three buildings with liquid fire before they got close. Min Yang was worried, in a distant way, that he was in more danger from the men around him than the monsters. What had happened to the stoic, unshakable Dragons? There was a soft crunch in a window on his left and the man spun, filling the entire doorway with blistering heat Min could feel even through his protection. He rushed away from the conflagration, cursing himself and the drugs. He'd practiced and trained, but it was different in the real, hard to stay that sharp with so much in his blood.

There was a thump that Min felt in his bones and the face of the building on the other side of the road showered the street in rubble. Something brained him, as he lost a few seconds, waking up prone in the mud.
"Good helmet. I'll have to thank the man that made it."

The angry ball of fire had rammed into a burning building and he could hear it still going through the walls, firing at ancestors knew what. He shook his head and wiped away the rain and found the reason that building was on fire. His partner was on the ground, nothing but a silhouette of fire-resistant gear, slowly melting in a pool of flames that had engulfed the entire street.

He looked from the flames on one side of the street, to the fires raging on the other. Min Yang thanked his instructors for hammering into him to keep a safe distance between partners and advanced on the flares still hanging in the sky down another path. By the time he got there, most of his squad had already arrived. Only nine remained with him there.

Multiple buildings were on fire and the Combat Engineers were spread out like the petals of a flower. Laying still around a temporary bridge they'd been making over a river that flowed where a two lane boulevard had once been. A bridge that had only a few supports still standing. Min could see the small river washing away more of the destroyed structure and shrapnel from the bridge was buried in the walls of the surrounding buildings, some of which had collapsed.

The few still standing from the forward squad were in talks with the First Lieutenant. As Min joined ranks with the others, one of the frog men ran down the side of a collapsed building like a monkey, joining the command huddle.

"The Sergeant?" his fellows asked. What could he say?
"He died a hero of the people. Saved my miserable life."
It was hard to resist the urge to giggle. Damn the side-effects, Min had to guard his tongue.

He man next to him scoffed. "None of that. They feed on nightmares, so we've come to drown them in our dreams. He died well, as well as any of us can ask. Just repay the debt when you have your own boy."

Min Yang wondered at that. Would any of them survive the day? If he did, he swore to care for his juniors as his seniors had cared for him.

"You're a Dragon now Yang and Dragons?"
"Dragons don't flinch!" Min finished, the familiar call helping center him.

"Stow it, Young Blood. Half the front is flaring up, but we're one of the points deepest. We push on. The hardhats will bridge the river with our rides. Proceed on foot. First wi-"

There was a whistle, growing louder.
• • •

Sara watched the distant, tiny lights.
"(Persistant little critters. Burning my pets.)"
For a moment, the screens died before the voice of the pilot brought them back.
"Switching to second core, base." he said with a shudder.

Almost a full quarter of the beasts were burned by Drakes in the urban environments. The Drakes could and did set entire fields or buildings on fire to flush them out, only to have tiny flaming balls come rushing out of them, completely blind and mad with pain. It could take as much as fifteen minutes for the damn things to finally stop moving once doused in napalm. Usually they triggered a mine before that.

But the rest were hunted down as rabbits. The Abyssal tanks couldn't use their machineguns after a Molotov hit, only turrets. And they had never been meant to massacre massed charges on foot, not outnumbered two or five thousand to one. As the living webs closed in, each monster found its paths limited by Molotov's thrown en mass and men hunting together.

Slowly surrounded it as men ran at it through the wind, rain and mud. Until one finally hit it with their oversized breaching pan. The pan would detach from the handle, attaching to the tank. Sometimes it stuck, others used barbed wires under pressure to enmesh the creatures. As long as enough lines survived the thrashing to stick it firmly to the surface, it was enough. Then it was all over but the waiting. Twelve to fifteen seconds later, the breaching charges would be no bigger than a button, before they blew and killed the tank.

The Type 54 HMG started up as the skies rained death, thousands of lights turning to the sky to hunt down their killers. The enemy air force was in the air. The Types were knock offs for the DShK 1938 "Dushka", HMG also used for AA that had served as far back as WW2. Widely sold and distributed for more than half a century and taking part in nearly every war since, each gun carried just a little bit of the greater legend in them. The promise of death at hearing a HMG fire. Enough weight to, with modern armor piercing ammo, puncture the weak stomachs of Abyssal flying wedges that made up most of their common aircraft.

It was hitting them in the wind and rain that was the problem. Trying to hit aircraft no bigger than a geese with only your eyes was a trial, even with the anti-aircraft ringed sights. The many, many lamps tracking them helped, as did the Abyssal willingness to rake their lines with fighters from low altitude. They just had to accept the bombs from up high. The guns could only reach 2-2.5 km into the air.

Yet for all their efforts and both sides attrition, those men were just bait. None of the actual monsters were there yet.

• •

Sara tried to catch a glimpse of the lines of vehicles that had disappeared deeper into the storm as Julien Claes watched on in stupefied horror. He was seeing the war up close for the first time. Even without the screams and shouts, the thunder of guns in his bones, he could still see the broken and dying, piling up.

Some trained part of him, the insatiable reporter, couldn't look away. This is what he had come to witness.

"I can't decide what's worse:" he thought, feeling as if the world was very far away, "the mercy being dispensed by officers to every man that can't hold up their flashlight anymore or the horrific states shrapnel, shells and napalm has left them in to beg for it."

His eyes wouldn't stop itching and it felt like it was spreading to his brain. He must have imagined it.
Then an entire line of guns went up in fire as the Abyssal's poked their faces out of the urban sprawls, floating on streams and rivers carved into the city over months of work and rain and it was time for the real fight.

• • •

Min Yang couldn't get the afterimage of the lightning out of his eyes or the thunder that had screamed to announce its coming. The whistle of falling bombs had spared them, fortunately and using the APCs as foundation had gotten them across the river. Min had been fifth in line. He didn't know what happened to the last Dragon. But he'd seen and felt the lightning strike. The two plumes of fire that used to be Dragons, as the storm caught them in the open on the bridge. That entire section was on fire. They'd have to find another way back.

His Lieutenant had been giddy about it.
"It means we got the Big Bitch's personal attention men.
So we must be doing something right. Forward!"

Min Yang drew what comfort he could from his sister's face as they marched through the storm. This deep, rivulets ran everywhere, so they were jogging in flowing water that reached above their ankles. It hid holes and unstable ground and was treacherous at best.

Six dragons, two frogs and two Engineers matched on. A red flare lit up the night ahead and to the left of them. The three surviving leaders shared a look.

"That's Gongqing park. Position four." Li claimed.
The frog looked at the buildings around them.
"Four kilometers, 4200 meters, tops."
"We can make that." the Engineer finished.

"Do it." Lieutenant Li ordered.
Min Yang couldn't catch his breath in the short stop.

The frog retrieved a flair gun from his waterproof bag, sending a red star into the skies.
More than a dozen joined them in the overcast skies, all converging on the park.
After an instant to check his wristwatch, Li drove them on.

Each kilometer felt harder than the next. Min Yang had already twisted his foot twice on holes hidden by the dirty waters. The medicine helped and he knew they were ever closer to their Dream, but he was falling behind. Each step leaving him a bit further back. And they were not slowing down just for him with the enemy in reach.

Min tried to keep them in sight but it was getting harder. Two grey shapes sped out of a side street between them, nearly giving him a heart attack. Both were turned away from him. Before the evil spirits could obliterate his comrades he raised the flamethrower in his hands and unleashed hell into their backs. Death screams exploded out of the conflagration and one of the flaming balls of death came right at him. Min Yang tried to step out of the way but it rammed into his shin without even noticing.

Solid boots with steel soles and ankle supports that had protected his footing and his ankle's against everything the treacherous ground could throw at him snapped like twigs under the impact of an Abyssal tank. At least his bones weren't pulverized. He did not fall as much as spin on his other foot in place as his right wrenched from the blow, the leg useless.

Min had to scramble to remove the boot before the napalm stuck to it burned through and worse than killed him. And throw away his gloves afterwards as well as it stuck everywhere. Fortunately, the few drops on him failed to do real damage, drowning under the endless rain and in the stream as he fell onto the street.

"Good Job Yang. You alive back there?" his superior asked, jolly.
"Yes, sir." he got out, shaken and bit strained.
"We aren't stopping Yang, so catch up if you can." his squad sent over the short ranged radio, before going dark.

He had a foggy thought that when he came off the drugs this would hurt quite a lot. He was still laying there when a second squad of frogs came through. In honor of his kills, they left two privates to help him the rest of the way there. Min Yang wasn't sure whether to thank them or curse them for it.

• • •

The real fighting had started. They'd been delayed by the Japanese shipgirls, but the monsters were here. Eagle One couldn't see them that deep in the storm and with all that cover, but Sara could see the consequences of their presence. Positions being reduced to churned up dirt, guns simply moving up and down the lines, killing with exact timers. Firing as soon as they'd reloaded. The PLA responded by finally unleashing their tanks. Lines rushed into the storm, raising large plumes of dust as they advanced.

Another clock, detailing "T-90 min" appeared in the corner of the big screen, as more than a thousand Type 59's and another thousand of mixed Type 88's, Type 96's and Type 99's rushed to face the enemy. Down the river came almost two-hundred amphibious Type 63's, now that the Abyss was committed to land operations.

"There they are." Sara whispered, watching another screen. Far above the low flying Abyssal fliers a few discrete Kanmusu planes slipped into the storm, losing their contacts.

A Japanese voice formally spoke over the line:
"This is Kanmusu Carrier Kaga. We've successfully disengaged from Nantong. No direct casualties." a professional if pained voice reported in.

"I've lost most of my fighter compliment and suffered moderate damage to my engines and light damage to the flight deck. The bomber wing remains fully operational. They are approaching the operating area from the north, as ordered under the Joint Operation Plan for Shanghai." They could hear her trying to breathe in, her breath hitching.
"Please advise, Command."

There was a loud clang over the line.
"No. You need to dock Kaga-san. You're barely limping along." a new voice jumped in.
"Perhaps if you stopped ramming me Mogami and helped tow, we would advance at a faster rate." Kaga replied, frostily.

"It's not ramming. I didn't run into anyone all mission. I'm pushing you!" Mogami defended herself, laughter in her voice.
"You're not a tug boat. You're an Aviation Cruiser. Remove your digits from my aft deck." Kaga protested, with a hint of flustered heat.

"It's not my fault that's the only thing about you that's soft." the murmur came through.
Someone in the command center choked.
"It's the only safe place to push." Mogami complained, louder. "Don't you want to go faster?"

"Your assistance is not required." Kaga rebutted, unmoved.
"But it's working!" Mogami protested.
"Wait one command." Kaga cut the line.

The man wearing enough brass to slip into a parade marching band slowly raised his hand, before forcefully finishing the motion. The one handed face palm rang in the near silent room as Sara maintained a professional mien with difficulty and Claes was bent over, palms on knees, wheezing for breath. Almost in one voice, most of the room said:

It was a curse. A prayer.
Some were frustrated, exasperated, others nearly laughing or giddy.
A few who'd known them well?

Their voices were warm, fond. Sara quickly memorized them. The girls needed all the friends they could get. And their friends should be friends too.

Nothing like talking about Shipgirl shenanigans to break the ice. And it had shattered. Sara's eyes, Claes head? They didn't hurt anymore and the entire command center saw an uptick in speed and performance as the cloying weight lifted.

They watched the PLA tanks zigzagging and moving in evasive patters to generate misses. It was one thing to hit a cruiser over the horizon. Quite another to hit tanks on land that knew you were firing on them. A few wrecks were still left behind. Even most modern tanks didn't do well against heavy near-vertical fire. In groupings of two and three? Direct hits were rare, but deadly. Their armor laughed off proximity hits.
"(They're a swarm, like locusts.)"
The screen flickered. "Third core, online." Eagle One reported in.

The biggest killer was the mud. Fording streams and small rivers. Any tank that got stuck for a moment was trapped for good. To Sara it felt like the watery earth didn't want to let them go. Once immobilized, they were soon swallowed by enemy fire. They needed room to maneuver against it. If they all wanted to keep advancing, there wasn't enough space without braving the soaked fields. Not one tanker flinched from their assigned routes and for all their differences Sara found herself cheering them on.

"Come on. Send those things back to whatever abyss they crawled out off." she growled quietly.

That no one reprimanded her was telling. A few did turn to do so, but stopped dead once they really looked at her. The reporter didn't look like much. Pale, shaking, tall, dark haired. Muttering quietly but determined not to look away. Dressed comfortably and conservatively in a black shift and a deep sea blazer, with slim soft brown pants. It was the ribbon that stood out, long and black, hanging from her put up hair, absently twisting in her fingers. Two things shined on it. Flashing around her neck and shoulders as her head turned to watch the feeds, leading the camera.

The first was the Distinguished Flying Cross. The second the Purple Heart. Both on a civilian, wearing black. They turned back to their stations, a few finally figuring out something that had been bugging them: how the hell she had gotten into this room.

On the ground, the scouts came into play. Now the frail, unimportant men that had gone into the storm nearly unarmed counted. Scouts that stood among the storm and shells, unprotected. Risking their lives to guide the charge around treacherous terrain and then the tank charge was out of view, swallowed by the clouds.

Looking into that still swirling storm, Sara could feel her heart starting to frost again.

"Ahem. As I was saying, Command, please advise." Kaga said, reconnecting.
"MBT assault is underway, Kaga and the guns are firing under scout guidance. They could use something a bit better." a communication officer instructed.
"Acknowledged. I have eyes on multiple vessels. "
"Patching you through to artillery central command. Give em hell, girl."
"Yes, sir."
"And Kaga? You're orders are Sunshine, I repeat, Sunshine." the instructions went.
"Executing." The dry voice replied, but there was a hint of satisfaction in it.

"Sunshine?" Claes asked.
"Just because they can't hack us, doesn't mean they aren't listening." Sara answered.

Because while there had been no known success of Abyssals hacking their lines, they didn't have to when some of them could just listen into the command center itself with their magi-exotics.

"We're in Beijing. No reason not to be polite." Sara concluded as Kaga filled the airways with location data. Data crunched by powerful computers far, far away. After being completely stripped of any meta-data. It spat out individual targeting instruction for every gun commander.

Instructions that were delivered in shorthand through the pre-set optical cables in the form of light based Morse Code. Because that? That could pass through the storm wall just fine. The first targets? The Artillery Imps that had been pounding away at their guns. Those at least couldn't move much and would die quickly.

• • •

Kaga was sailing away from the fight. It felt wrong, but their hosts had insisted. Sunshine would at least allow her to participate. She'd offered herself as bait, in case the Ritual proved insufficient to draw the Abyss to Nantong. Buying time for their allies to establish a beachhead. Now, she was escaping because of their sacrifices. She said a prayer for the lost souls. Kaga had a job to do and she would perform at to standard. If not better.

She missed Akagi. Worried for her. And Japan. All this, a sideshow to the fleets clashing off their coasts. Sometimes, she hated war. The sooner they were done here, the sooner Kaga could go help. With Mogami flying observers, she could focus on her bombers, even as a part of her kept track of enemy ships and Kaga reported their positions to the allied network.

[Far Sight] was a staple Class Skill for any professional Carrier. Of course, Kaga had mastered it. She would not accept anything less of herself, her fleet depended on her. While Kaga's voice was occupied relaying positioning data, she planned her approach for Sunshine, looking through the eyes of her planes. With so many Abyssal aircraft busy with the guns and tanks and the enemy focused on the west? Kaga wondered just how close her fairies could get before they were spotted.

A double line of tanks rushing down an open boulevard that had survived the occupation and the fighting suddenly braked to a stop. Kaga could see the Abyssal tank, but all her planes were already promised for. And she couldn't get there in time. It was less than two blocks away from the tank lines. The leading Type 99's armor laughed off the first shell and the Types weren't paralyzed for long. Unable to reverse, they started up again, turning into side streets to clear the firing lines even as they fired their cannons.

Six tanks fired in the time it took the Abyssal to cross the distance. With only optics to rely on, a target only a bit larger than their shells? In their face with barely any time to aim and so low to the ground, only one scored a direct hit, the rest splattering the street. The high-explosive incendiary splattered the tank in thermate paste, scaring its hide but missing the turret. One hit wasn't enough. One hit was all they got as the range closed under thirty meters.

The next shot? Even as the modern tanks scattered the previously obsolete Type 59 charged the Abyssal, trying to run it over. Kaga could see it, not from so far above, but she'd come prepared. Kaga would not neglect her duties or her allies, so she'd read up on the threat they would be facing. The Abyssal shell left its barrel no bigger than a large grain of rice. It carried the full force, power and density of the whole shell, focused in that tiny space. Even then, modern armor could have handled it. But the rest?

Within 20-30m, before it caught up to having Abyssal field and expanded fully into the real world, the shell threated the armor of any target struck as if it was the distorted one, which left even modern armor no denser than soft wood. The Type 59 blew up inside as the Abyssal tank drove on, passing under the slain tank's undercarriage to strike the next tank from below as they desperately maneuvered to crush it with their tracks.

Six of the fourteen tanks would be knocked out, before the mechanized infantry following along could intervene and deal with the enemy. Five Type 59's sacrificing themselves to buy more modern armor time that it might survive to reach the enemy ships battle ready.
"Brave men. Brave fools. How we failed so hard that they must this themselves? I shouldn't think such dark thoughts. There are enough nightmares in the world without adding to them, and it helps no one. Smile Kaga, smile and fight on. We'll win this yet."

If not for the supplies, logistical and informational support from the US, China and Russia, Japan would have fallen by now. Her home was mighty, leading the world in Ritual development and among the top in fighting spirit and numbers of Kanmusu. But they could not support them all, not over the years, through all that fighting, not alone.

Fortunately, they weren't alone. If this grand sacrifice finally let them kill the Battleship Princess that had been leading the war on Japan, Kaga would honor their sacrifice and maybe accept they might not be fools, no matter how brave. Proving that men could kill an Abyssal Princess with only minor Kanmusu support might just change the world.

The first artillery shells with corrected spotting started falling on enemy ships and the Abyss screamed. Tanks closed in and began to trade direct fire with the Abyssal fleet. Quicker and more maneuverable on land, with the Abyss limited to their rivers and channels, it was an exchange they could win. Every Abyssal turret hit would mission kill a tank, by flinging it and badly injuring the crew, if nothing else. The simultaneous hits of two six inch shells more than enough force to rattle any tank. This at least, Kaga and her fleet had given them, reducing most destroyers in Shanghai to ruin in their fighting retreat.

So they faced mostly cruisers and enemy aircraft. But the tanks did not face them up front. They hunted the Abyss like hounds, attacking from cover and immediately falling back, each hit like a bee sting. Not dangerous alone, but they added up as now the Abyss had to deal with both direct and indirect fire raining down on them.

Kaga watched the balance shifting, considering where best to be of use. No one else could see the whole field as clearly. She picked her targets, still keeping an eye on lookout duty for the Abyssal Princess. Everything was going well. Even Mogami had figured out a new trick, proving that all her accidental collisions had not been in vain.

"It's still embarrassing, even if it's efficient. "Not soft anywhere else". I heard that.

Perhaps, if pressed by Akagi, Kaga might admit that she was focusing so hard on the fight to not think about her current state. Being towed was embarrassing enough. Having Mogami push her was even worse. Did she have to keep shifting her hands? Couldn't she just apply a constant, steady force?

"What am I thinking, It's Mogami. Consistency is the enemy." Kaga suppressed a snort.

It wouldn't do to be impolite when Mogami was earnestly trying to help her. Even if Kaga was certain someone, somewhere would snap photos of her disheveled, uncouth circumstances and put them online. Kaga just hoped no one was filming. That would be too embarrassing. Surely with the massive assault on Shanghai, everyone had better things to do?

• • •

Fortune would smile on Kaga that day. For while photos were made by a layabout teen, their family caught them. The images were sent to the Japanese Embassy, not the internet. From there they made their way to the Kanmusu corps and Akagi's album.

• • •

Attacked from in front and beyond the horizon, with infantry in their face and tanks playing hit and run? Kaga's bombers got far too close to react in time. The Abyss saw them coming too late for anything but their own AA fire to matter. Too late to recall their own fighters and interceptors. The bombs fell, not to kill, for Kaga didn't have enough bombers for them all, but to wound, to breach. The constant harassment had weakened and pitted their armor, and now Kaga blew it wide open. Through those holes, a swarm of burning bees poured in, and ship after ship stumbled and fell as the Abyssal lines finally collapsed.

But not without answer. The areal swarm turned and came after her planes as they fled for clear skies. A new wave of Abyssal Revenge Torpedo Bombers followed them from the one horned Harbor Princess in their wake to pull Kaga down into the Abyss. A distorted, barely comprehensible voice that sounded like a choir of dying nightmares sounded on Kaga's bridge.
"I see you… little Carrier…fire…run… you are tired…lost…I'll find you…help…understand…into the Abyss." the mad ship wailed.

With all the damage her formation had already taken, perhaps Kaga would have sunk under so much airpower. But she wasn't alone. Sunshine was coming and Kaga had done her part to bring it to the field as enemy planes chased hers beyond the hurricane and into the open sky.

• • •

Sara was watching with baited breath. The reports flowing in from Kaga and Eagle One were encouraging. The monsters were breaking. The artillery park had taken horrendous damage in a duel with the Abyss, but now even the 15inch guns were falling silent. Redirecting to closer threats. By now most of the Abyss had been destroyed or made combat ineffective. Like the air wings chasing after Kaga. But somewhere in there, a Princess of the Abyss was still fighting.

Kaga's bombers finally cleared the storm and the Abyss was right on their tails.
"Sunshine, Sunshine. I can't keep them off me for long." Kaga called out.

Hundreds of Xi'an JH-7s, Chengdu J-7s, J-10s, Shenyang J-8 and J-16s came out of the sun, moving at speeds the WW2 aircraft couldn't match. Anything that could mount an autocanon that was rugged and immune to EM interference. And could fire HEIAP rounds.

The mass of fighters and multi-role jets had only two goals: remove enemy airpower in the region and don't clip the storm. Even coming this close would do some damage to their systems, but that could be fixed. Their craft blowing up because a weapon system failed in a new and interesting manner was rather final. Fly-by-wire failures would at least let you eject if the worst happened.

Even as Sara waited for the Abyss to finally die, the reporter in her was disappointed not to see any Russian MiG-AWs. Next to the US's F-AWs they were just about the only dedicated military aircraft that could brave the storms. There were hints the Europeans and the PLAAF were working on their own Abyssal War jets. But if none were here, China didn't have any ready yet and the Russians weren't lending them trainers. Or if they were, it was buried so deep they'd rather take all these loses than use them to save lives while the internationals were watching. Speaking of internationals…

"Claes have you been watching non-stop?" Sata asked. She knew to pace herself, take regular breaks, don't watch the feeds too much, don't stare into the Abyss. Regularly check her eyes in the mirror.

The girls helped as well, but now…
"Didn't anyone tell him to pace himself?"

She was distracted by the feeds dying. "Those are coming faster. The Princess must be pissed."
"What?" Eagle One snapped. "Switching to final core, Command. Degradation gradient rising. Exotics are elevated."

"Of course. I wouldn't miss a second of it. It's my first time seeing it for real. This is history in the making." Claes told her, turning to face her. His eyes were heavily bloodshot, like he'd pulled an all-nighter then retired to a bar crawl to get blackout drunk and woken up with barely any sleep and severely dehydrated. His eyes were manic. He sounded fine, like it didn't even matter.

Sara slapped him outright, filled with horrified disbelief.
"Are you trying to die, stupid? Do you like getting strokes?" she asked, as anger replaced horror.

He reeled, taking an unsteady step back, as if the slap was a straight from a heavy weight boxer, ending up flat on his ass.

"Ow. What are you, some martial artist? What stroke?" he asked, rubbing his face and shaken.
"That's just some conspiracy theory. Abyssal curses aren't real."

"So help me God." Sara fumed.
"Of course they're real, what the fuck do you think happened to Cali?" she asked.

"Radiation? Come on, you can't tell me you believe- that's nonsense. It can't be real. Can it?" Claes said, plaintive and confused, but not about to argue with a senior. A more established reporter in the field while a battle was going on, inside a command center. It just wasn't done. So he asked.

"Medic!" one of the attending guards called into the radio, grim.
Sara opened her compact and crouched down, letting him see himself in the mirror.
"Yeah? Then what happened to you? You get drunk while I wasn't looking?"

The Belgian paled as all color fled his face. A moment later, his nose started bleeding.
"But. But. I've watched them. I've seen many videos!" he protested.
"You saw recordings, not live transmissions." Sara pointed out bluntly.
"How did you get into this room without knowing any of this?" she asked.

• • •

The Shenyang J-16 pilot checked his EW readouts again. He was flying one of the finest war machines humanity had ever made and he would not fail his mission. Between all the tools of modern air combat, from radar-absorbing coatings to his comparatively massive EW suite, he was convinced the first thing the enemy craft would see of him would be the autocannon rounds hitting. They'd even come out of the Sun, just to blind any optics the Abyss might have.

The Weapon Systems Officer signaled her readiness. The board was green across the wing.
"Remember targeting protocols, and good luck everyone."

He gave the signal. It bounced off Eagle One and went to the Japanese allied assets. A moment later the sky bloomed with tracer fire. The Abyss may be cold-blooded. It might have the scientists of the Party divided on if their craft were covered in superior radar absorbents coatings, or the exotics were just eating radar pulses. But in the light of the dawn, with tracer fire to follow? It didn't matter.

Task Force Sunshine followed the lines of light. The Weapons System Officer found her target on purely mechanical optics that had some electronic control assistance from her end but no chip behind the controls. Optics refitted for that very task, because while the craft might have no exotic resistance, humans did. She was the one watching, not the J-16. The resistance was miniscule. This high up, this close to the storm and looking right at an Abyssal craft while about to pass close enough to almost touch it? It was lethal in under two minutes. Enough for the twenty seconds it would take them to enter the engagement envelope.

She reached out and adjusted her intakes to track the craft's steady flight while the plot kept his heading. Then the Weapon Systems Officer put that positional data; altitude, speed, heading, into the pilot's guidance system even as her eyes and brain itched. Careful not to close both eyes, blinking in a trained pattern. Because if she did, the Shenyang would be the one watching and it had no resistance. They'd crash.

The pilot watched the countdown and as it neared zero he aimed and fired.

• • •

The first thing the Abyssal airforce knew of Sunshine was the heavy explosive armor piercing incendiaries ripping into them and pumping them full of burning zirconium. For while Abyssal tanks could shrug off thermite shrapnel and keep coming, Abyssal planes were nowhere near as resistant to fire or armored. Planes were notoriously easy to down, once hit, which worked against them.

As well, the Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-23 firing many shells worked on principles of the Gast gun developed in 1916. The other autocannon present, the Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1 worked on recoil operation, in use since the nineteenth century. Most famously by the Maxim's 1883 automatic recoil operated machine gun. Both had been in use for decades, the refinement of pre WW2 principles. There was a legacy to them, a weight of history behind them as weapons of war.

It was useful, and it had unfortunate implications.

There was an unspoken agreement to suffocate an inconvenient fact among the world's nuclear powers. That the effectiveness of missiles against the Abyss had grown after the first "Limited Nuclear Exchange" between India and Pakistan. Not enough to actually be useful, but if they kept nuking cities, they'd get there. The sane counter-argument was that it was insane. The insane counter argument was that the Abyss was already experimenting with early jet models and primitive missiles. Did they want to give them the Bomb as well?

• • •

Most went down in seconds. The Abyssal Revenge Torpedo Bombers of the Princess needed a second pass. The second air wing sweeping up survivors cleared the skies. The spotters and pilots of single seat craft would need a good meal and a long rest, but they'd be fine in a week.
(Leave us alone!)
They were on their way out when a mad, ugly screech deafened every man and woman in the sky. A moment later they were down seventeen aircraft as fingers of lightning reached beyond the storm to pluck them from the sky. Sunshine fled the storm before they lost any more. As they left, the storm fell. Clouds falling towards the ground, temperatures suddenly dropping to near arctic levels.

• • •

"Well, you led me in remember?" he said, still pale but suddenly roguishly smiling. "I'm your camera man." he finished. The slew of curses that erupted from Sara would have done any Navy brat proud.

For while Claes did have a valid International Press Card from the IFJ to be in the nerve center of allied operations, he was not part of a team cleared for the live portion of the exercise. That was her scoop. Not hers alone, there were two other press teams in the room, but Claes had ridden her coattails in. The sort of thing a young man might do, that an old man would shudder at. It was incredibly daring and stupid of him. He also may have been just a bit distracted. A tiny bit.

Sara? Sara was well within her rights to recruit another certified journalist into her team. Sara had merely neglected to notice she had done so. And by the end of this, Sara would swear she had recruited him after her previous camera man failed to fulfill the basic details of his contract.

"I'd figured since he was in the building someone had filled him in. He had the pass, the skills and was on the grounds. Hells, security checked us both over on the way in. Obviously he was cleared. I just didn't know his European education was so flawed."

Neither of them wanted to go to Chinese jail, their homelands jails or have their passes pulled. Which is how twenty something Sara Anne Hebert-Pérez, divorcee and AP War correspondent for the Eastern Front and Julian Claes, IFJ independent and newcomer from Belgium ended up on the same press team.

It was a net positive for the world. Even if it was a rocky start for the two now stuck together.

• • •

Min Yang was watching the end of the world. Gongqing park had been eaten by the Abyss. He'd walked those paved lanes once, visiting the great city to see where Fa Yang wanted to go to University. It was Shanghai. Of course he went. The family made a day of it. Now it was gone. The trees ripped out, most worn down stumps drowning in the mud. The Hangpu river had flooded the banks and it was as if the entire park had slumped into it.

It was watery swamp of mud and dark, gleaming metal that itched to look at even past the medication. Half remembered warnings told Min Yang that was bad. It was hard to care. They were here. Channels and streams had been carved in that mud, a monstrous harbor usurped from a place of beauty. There was a deep, wild, repugnant beat to the place. Telling them in no uncertain terms they were not welcome and the Harbor Princess was waiting for them.

What had survived Abyssal occupation had not lived past the hours long bombardment, napalm coating near every surface of the flooded park until it looked like a scene from one of the Western hells, broken black domes still sticking out of the liquid fires. And somewhere in there, the repeated thumping of cannon. The brown flares were coming closer, the tanks closing in. A mix of brown and reds marked the sky over the river side of the park.

"The river tanks have beat us to it." The amphibious Type 63's coming in down the empty river, with the Abyss so busy on all sides. But they couldn't kill it. The tanks would help, but…

"Min Yang!" Liutenant Li greeted him as he was helped to the rally point at the edge of the park and the fires.

Even within his suit, it was difficult to breathe and sweltering. He was sweating a stream in all this cold rain. It seemed unreal.

"Lieutenant. One shot, two kills." Min reported in.
"Well done young man. You do the family proud. And the party!" he laughed, checking his wristwatch.

"I feared you would not make it in time." he added. "But it seems you have." The lieutenant finished, with a hint of respect and a bit of regret.
Min Yang wasn't sure how to respond.

"Well, we do what we must. Ready up. We're charging in two." the Lieutenant informed him.
Dutifully, Min readied his final shot. They were provided to the Dragons for their daredevil charges. If he was to charge into that firestorm, Min could use some chemical support. He was not afraid to die if he must, but this one looked almost as ugly as what happened to the Sergeants.

As he removed the needle and the bottle of drugs Min caught Lieutenant looking at him in confusion.
"The final charge medicine Lieutenant." Min said.

The Lieutenant turned his eyes behind Min was the other Dragons started howling.
"Did I or did I not tell you to stop pulling this shit on newblood?" the Lieutenant rang, as loud as a bugle for muster.

"Tell you what the Lieutenant, you can brig me if I live!" the squad responded merrily.
"We bring the Dream to the enemy! What are we?" the men howled, proud and unbowed before the flames.
"Dragons!" the entire squad, Min and Li included screamed.

"Fine you miserable louts," the Lieutenant said, fondly and with regret.

"But when I see you after you'll be learning traditional calligraphy as a punishment detail! One Minute!" he shouted, as golden flares lit up the night from seven different places around the park.
"Watch carefully Min. You're a bright Young Man. You'll be in my position someday." he promised.

More flares, of every color, every flare so far unused by every officer in the city jumped for the sky behind them. A chain unbroken leading all the way back to the artillery park and out of the storm.

All over China, news stations that had been reporting on the battle, changed. They alarms and sirens had woken the People of the Republic and spend that last few hours readying them, priming them.

As "The March of the Volunteers" played on every channel, across televisions from Shadong to Fuijan, Henan to Hunan and everything in between.

People all over the Provinces were glued to their screens, none more so then Jiangsu and Zhejiang, who bordered Shanghai. As among the millions of watchers, every Dragon that had gone into the storm was divided, portioned. Their individual faces broadcast on screen to a predetermined segment of those watching. Without interruption while their lives and deeds were held up as living examples of virtue and hope, of people carrying the Dream of a World Free from the Abyss.

As the hymn ended, political officers from every station extoled their courage and told the people that the hour was nigh.
"That even now, the brave Dragons of China have come of the enemy!" they roused.

"The valiant sons and daughters of China will push the enemy off our shores and send them back to whatever dark abyss they'd crawled out off!" the stirring, rousing rhetoric would continue as the feeds flickered and changed. The picture of their assigned Dragon in uniform staying in one corner, while the storm came into every household. Every family.

A storm illuminated by thousands of tiny lights of every color, defiant against the dark clouds, the wind and endless, stolen rain.
"They are charging! The Dragon is coming! The March of the Volunteers!" they proclaimed, demanded over every screen, into every home.

"Cheer them on, loyal sons and daughters of the Republic! That the Dream may be real! Support the Volunteers!" they cheered, naming each one.

The explosion of sound and emotion as more than two hundred million tiny souls sang in a chorus Echoed. Watching as the light struggled against the storm and seeing the people fighting in their name. It Resonated.

Sara had been spared the rhetoric in the command center, but she knew to scream anyway as Claes kept the camera rolling, watching the whole thing in wonder. They all shouted defiance into the thing that fed on nightmares and wished to drown it in their dreams as the ribbon in her hands burned her heart. Dreams in which it had no place. In which it never should have happened.

Flowing from screen to camera to field, the hopes and dreams of a nation washing up against the stormwall. A stormwall that was cracked, broken. Pierced first by a pillar of Kanmusu make, then the breach further widened by bloody sacrifice. Blood freely, willingly spilled. Martyred to break the living Nightmare and bring the Dream forward.

On it flowed, a sea of barely focused power, down lanes and highways, following the charge of tanks and routes of combat engineers, dancing through the still burning flames. Crossing bridges built this very day to bring them all to the heart of the storm. To the faces it was focused on. Until it pooled at the edge of a hellscape and the Dragons dreamed.

Min Yang could almost see his family gathered around the television, watching him. His back firmed and his leg was no longer a concern. He stood, unbound from mortal flesh, his very soul burning as every Dragon on the scene doused themselves in their own fires as their tanks overflowed. Covered in napalm that wasn't. That was something more. Something that didn't burn them or trouble their eyes as it glowed a bright, soft blue, the color of clear skies.

Seven consolidated, surviving squads of Dragons plunged into the watery inferno. The fires grew blue in their passing and the mud and waters had no hold on them. They ran on the floating flames as if they were was solid ground and charged into the inferno towards a hole, a blight that didn't belong.

• • •

Kaga was watching still. It was poor form, but she felt the need to bear witness. So while most of her planes had returned, a few had turned around and now circled above the Installation. On they came, seven blue, fiery bolts that sliced through the half-destroyed ruins and went for the Harbor Princess herself. She was demolishing Type 63's by the dozen as lightning after lightning came down, so enraged she'd forgotten all about her cannons.

They came on even as she turned and sent the lightning against them. As her cannon tore them apart they left their flesh behind and advanced as Living Echoes in the raging fires. Seven bolts struck the Harbor Princess and the dome shield that had taken everything else the PLA had thrown at her without so much as a scratch, shattered like glass. She stumbled, stunned. The tanks had not lost time, everything that could gathered on the edges of the park and aimed for the enemy.

The storm of shells that followed should never have worked. They should have interfered with one another, but not one did. Each one flew true, as if drawn by the blue flames drowning the Pale and Black monster, taking on their sheen as it flew, leaving burning after-images and swirling in the firestorm. The firestorm, for by now it was more fire than rain as shell after shell hit the exposed and added to the conflagration.

• • •

Her people, her girls were burning. And Shanghai was helpless to stop it. All this, she could take. Every last bit of damage they had done her, was fixable. Mostly physical and as such easy to heal. Even with an ocean of power, the humans didn't have the skill or the weight to truly focus it into something that could hurt an Abyssal Princess. They could break her shell apparently, but her spirit would retreat to the next major port and she'd be back in under a month. The ocean of power around her would even allow it, encourage it, as long as she left these shores.

But none of that would help her girls. Girls who were in most cases, still alive. Disabled, stuck and filled with liquid fire, but still holding on, because they could hear and feel her distress, even as she was trapped in here with theirs. And she was helpless to stop it, because her shell was failing. Whatever new trick the humans had used, it had broken her shield. Something Shanghai thought was impossible. The entire China Seas Court had laughed at reports humans? Humans could do that. They were just pests.

Yet now she had felt tens and hundreds of millions of ants together overpower even her, if only for a moment. And it was too late for regrets and recriminations. She would not abandon them. It was her mistake, so she would pay for it. Her soul had been hurt far worse by what her failure had brought on her fleet, then their primitive attempts at Ritual. So when Shanghai plunged her own hands into her chest and ripped it open in a death scream, the power that flooded out had not been reduced and weakened, as would have been fighting the Enemy. She was not lesser for trying to fight so her soul was still potent enough to bring the touch of the True Abyss to Shanghai.

• • •
As the storm fell, everything froze. In one breath, every light, every fire, every engine was extinguished everywhere in the storm circle. Tanks and vehicles without NBC seals froze solid, while those with merely became artic inside. Those tanks would survive unharmed. Their crews wouldn't. Of the entire incident, anyone within forty miles of the death curse would experience arctic temperatures and winds, many dying from exposure or suffering horrific frostburn as the whole city froze in an instant.

Everything but the waterways, down which the surviving Abyssals would flee, screaming for aid. Under cover of snow, as Exotic levels plummeted. Their screams would call away three fleets form the battle around Japan and ultimately serve as a beginning of the end to The Empress's ambitions for this campaign.

"You don't understand... anything... at all..." Kaga heard her utter at the end. A whisper, a death rattle, a curse on the world.

• • •

Only seven would live untouched by the cold. The youngest in each of the bolts loosed. Min Yang was one of them. He would return to his empty rooms, to all the phones and families waiting there for him, hailed as a Hero of the Republic. A member of the Dragon Team that took back Shanghai. He felt unworthy, yet tried to project the image of A Dragon on his way back to his quarters. Just his now.

"Fa Yang is recovering well." His mother told him back in the bunker.
"What?" he asked, demanded. And it was a sharp, ragged thing that came out of his throat.

"Do not worry Min Yang. It was the lungs, bleeding. It scared us half to death. But the doctors got to her in time. Her brother is a Dragon after all." She reassured.
"And Grandma had her third stroke. "They won't get me yet!"" she mimicked.
"You can hear her laughing." she said, happy, giddy with joy that her son had survived.

"Oh" Min Yang concluded, and finally, finally collapsed. He had no desire to move from this spot for at least a week. His leg was killing him. Well, if it helped the family, he would have to endure. Become worthy of the accolades they were planning to pile on him. What other choice was there? What would have happened to Fa Yang if her brother wasn't a Dragon wasn't worth considering. So a Dragon he remained. Even if he never wanted to brave a storm ever again.

"No wonder they're all weird. They cracked. I'll crack too. Thank you, my fellows. For everything." he thought as sleep claimed him.

• • •

The initial casualty count was almost forty-five thousand dead. And just under a hundred thousand injured. The injured were inspected for wounds. Anyone with blunt trauma or burns went to the hospitals, so did the frostbite. But those with only such were few, less than fifteen percent.

Cuts? Puncture or bullet wounds? Any kind of external bleeding? They were offered a choice. They could give their service weapon to a friend to give them mercy, or ask their commanding officer for it. If not, they would give up their arms and strip of everything but their underclothes and be remanded to warm cots. Where they were secured so as not to injure themselves. Because they'd been open and the Abyss was in them.

Almost twenty percent chose a bullet. For the rest came unending nightmares and no sleep. Night and day, as they slowly deteriorated. For some it was a few days. For most over a week. Few of those lived, and they died hard and ugly, some trying to attack their nurses and doctors in suicidal mania.

But the biggest casualties were not among the men. Almost a million and a half civilians died, among those watching. Strokes and heart attacks were the leading cause of death, followed by internal bleeding. Because as they'd poured their hopes into Shanghai, they'd pushed back the Abyss, but it too had touched them. Nightmares and suicides were common in the weeks after, as was increased crime.

And yet, the PLA felt the battle a victory. Worth it. They'd proven that men could kill even a Princess. And because all those numbers joined over nine figures of citizens already buried in the Abyssal war just in China. And that number did not start with a one. The PLA had not shared it with anyone in the war, even their own people, but rumors floated about and some security agencies knew.

This was why the people of the PRC and the PLA hated the Abyss beyond thought, beyond reason. Why the main export of the Chinese Abyssal ports wasn't food, or steel. Ammo or oil, but new Abyssals.

For the Abyss? It fed on nightmares and the long war had seeded so very many on these shores.

• • •

There was a final change after the battle. The last consequence. As evening fell on the following day and rescue and recovery operations filled the city, the first drops of water fell on the fields past Shanghai. The parched, cracked ground welcomed them after almost four months without rain.

AN: Damn, Shanghai was hard to write. But it's necessary in a way. It's one thing to show the aftermath of Acapulco. But if the Abyss is to be taken seriously as a global threat, it needs to be one. On to calmer waters.


Part 2: Wardens

"They're breaking off." the communication officer reported.
"China?" the Japanese Admiral, Kouki Aruga asked.

"Still nothing, sir." the foreign liaison answered.
"How many?" Aruga absently wondered, waiting for his strategic situation to update.

"All of them." the officer replied, as he put the report through the strategic image on everyone's screens adjusted. All three Abyssal fleets from the South China Sea were in full retreat.
"What?" the Vice Admiral snapped. A moment later he settled down with a thoughtful frown.
"Why?" was the more relevant question.

"Does it matter?" the PM asked.
"It does if it's a feint. Thought why they'd need to fake anything at this point…" the Vice Admiral answered, while the Admiral gazed into the middle distance. The strategic situation was dire. If they could hold out while the Americans got here through the Northern Corridor, they might turn it around, but that had looked like a rather bleak proposition minutes ago.

"I think… it's real. Fleet Intelligence has shown the two do not play well with one another." Admiral Aruga said.

"If this is China and the southern fleets are being abandoned by their allies, we might yet turn this around. Get me confirmation on what was hit." he ordered the officers. The PM raised a hand to interrupt the order, picking up his own phone.

Kouki considered the map of Japan. The Abyss was pushing, hard. Both from the north and south and in overwhelming numbers. Or at least it had been. But while the Battleship Princess was making a mess of things up north, without a similar class of heavy combatant in the south and with their numbers so reduced…

The PM answered a phone call, connecting to their Ambassador in Beijing. After a short conversation, he put the phone down. "Shanghai is down. They claim they killed the Hime with conventional weapons."

Every uniformed officer around the table scoffed.
"Can't be done. But if it is dead, no matter how it was done…" the army general lead.
"They might be able to do it again and the South China Seas Hime has to honor the threat. It's real."

The table descended into silence. Admiral Kouki Aruga, the second Commander ever of the Kanmusu corps smiled. "I'm feeling bold today, Prime Minister."
He picked up his own connection and punched in a number.

"Not too bold, I hope?" the PM asked. When the answer wasn't immediately forthcoming he continued a bit worried.
"The last time you felt bold our economy took weeks to recover." he reminded the Navy brass.
"We also pushed the Abyss half-way to Midway." Kouki kept to himself. He was already facing enough silent opposition for ascending to so exalted a rank at the tender age of thirty eight, it was best not to add to his burdens. Even after almost two years of leading the war, some officers still called him the Young Old Man behind his back.

"Nothing quite so drastic. But it seems to me that if we can but tie up the northern force-
"Yamato here, how can I help you?" she asked to the bustle of pots and pans.

"Yamato-" the Admiral started in a grave tone.
"I volunteer." she interrupted him.
"You don't even know what you're volunteering for." Kouki grumbled good naturedly.

"I volunteer." the Flagship said, firmly, determined, with not a quiver of doubt.
"Are we not past this?" she asked, her voice calm, relaxed.

"There's protocol." Kouki protested, just a bit uncomfortably. He was a damn better than decent strategist, but the near worshipful regard some of his ships held for him was a bit much.

"After all we've been through? You are my Admiral and I your Flagship. It's that simple." she rethread the old argument.
"Where am I needed, Sir?"

"How long could you stretch out a duel with the Battleship Princess, if you tried?" he asked.
"Quite a bit. She is quite… taken with breaking me properly. If I tried to stretch it out? At least a few days." Yamato responded, not a hint of reluctance or fear in her voice.

"You understand we're betting your life and the fate of Japan on her madness being reliable?" Kouki asked whimsically, while the PM looked on, sweating a bit.

"The detachment I've in mind to assign you would leave you terribly outnumbered and surrounded." he continued.
"I will not fail." she responded, unflinching.
"We battleships were made to take punishment and keep fighting, Admiral. To protect our fleet, our home." she finished softly.

The Admiral breathed in deeply. "I guess if the only thing constant about them is the madness, we might as well use it." he pondered, his resolve solidifying.

"Pick a Light Escort formation that will keep you alive, Yamato, if things go wrong. If you can hold her for four days, we'll break the southern fleets and come north. If we time it right, between us and the Americans, we might finally sink her. But your orders are to come back home, first." he emphasized.

"You hear me Flagship!?" the Commander of Kanmusu Corps thundered.
"You come back, and that's an [Order]." he commanded.

Yamato's voice perked up. "I hear you, my Commander. See you in four days." she finished with reassuring, soft laughter, as the line cut off.

The PM and the rest of the gathered brass ignored the inappropriate behavior. The Admiral carried many hats, and none so outside of the box as Commander of the Kanmusu Corps. No one really reacted anymore to their antics. Well, if they were within reason. With Kanmusu, you never knew. The spontaneous Karaoke tournament in the middle of Marunouchi Central Plaza that went on for four days without stopping at night, and grew in thousands of listeners and hundreds of competitors was a bit much.

The Admiral coughed into his hand, re-assuming the mien of a serious Navy officer that never, ever played with children as a part of his job.
"If the enemy has given us a chance to serve them up defeat in detail, I say we take it." he pushed.
It would take the Admiral almost an hour to bring the PM around, but in the end, he did.

Really, it was the least the Americans could do to come help, when they bungled their raiding so badly. How they'd let more than fifty thousand tons of Bauxite through to Midway without making the Abyss pay in spilled oil and broken steel was a mystery for the ages.

• • •

"It really isn't fair. Saratoga and Yorktown get to go for a jaunt on the Northern Corridor and go fight the Battleship Princess, riding to the rescue. We? We're stuck in this place. It's a graveyard in here, out there, I'm bored out of my skull." USS Lexington rightfully critiqued.

She did not complain, or *gasp* whine. She was critiquing her current circumstance. It was important to set a good example for the smaller girls and this was just un-acceptable.

"Seriously, Lexi could you not? You do this every time they assign us to San Diego." Wasp pleaded with her.
"First you get all manic, then you go quiet, then the humming starts and the instrument experiments and by the time we get back to San Fran you'll have an entirely new song ready to record and my poor head will be ringing. Can we skip all the complaints and get to the good stuff?" Wasp asked.

"Here, I'll go get my bow, you get your notebooks and some instruments and we'll take it from there? This place is bad enough without your endless whining." Wasp suggested, pushing her buttons.

"I don't whine." Lexington whined. "I critique you tasteless brute." she sniffed.
"Well this tasteless brute loves your music when it's done." Wasp rebutted, causing Lexington to flush.

"But your process could use some work. Tell you what, if you're doing well, I'll even sing along." Wasp offered, flushing herself. She wasn't very good. Lexington was beaming, ready to explode in joy.

"But! If you whine, I'm using you as target practice. Deal?" Wasp offered.
"Deal." Lexington agreed, smiling widely.

So the two carriers assigned to San Diego amused themselves and their smaller sisters. There wasn't much else to do. Apart from the Navy bases, San Diego was evacuated. The only town lucky enough to have that privilege when Raven's Progress came to Los Angeles to die. The Shipgirls stationed here had managed to shield the town, warned by survivors from Pearl Harbor racing ahead of the hurricane and a feeling of directionless dread. The rest of southern California was not so lucky.

Raven had sunk in the end, not showing her face for almost a year afterwards.
Iowa had broken out of her museum as the storm lashed Los Angeles. Dueled and sunk her, herself.

But that was bitter comfort for the Shipgirls, for before she'd sunk, Raven had slammed her four-hundred mile wide acid rain and cursed waters hurricane right down the throat of Los Angeles. It had lingered there, for days, until it was spent. Raven had sunk only 560ft (170m) south of Point Fermin and 2300ft(700m) east of it, within sight of Terminal Island. That was the center of the storm. For a bit over two hundred miles (330km) around that point, everyone everywhere but Shipgirls and a small area around San Diego, had died. Almost ten million dead, in the opening shots of the Abyssal war going hot. And that was just civilians.

Evacuation orders had helped keep the death toll down somewhat. But they had been given in warning of a normal, if abnormally powerful hurricane. The first warning any of them had of the real scope of the threat were Pearl Harbor survivors limping into port, running before the storm. And San Diego Shipgirls, feeling unwell, until they were possessed to prepare the first defensive Ritual circle ever made, so lost to their work it would take months of study to replicate their creation.

Nothing lived in that giant circle around Los Angeles anymore. No grass, no trees, no animals. What trees had been there were frozen in the moments of their deaths, crumbling to pale ash at the touch of any living thing, but ignoring the blowing winds. The animals, the people? They'd disappeared. You could drive a car over the roads that survived, in complete silence and never hear a thing, but whispers lingering just beyond the edge of hearing.

Some roads were still maintained, but southern California was a land of ghosts. Of empty skyscrapers and abandoned towns. At night, there were shapes moving in the darkness, gone the moment you looked and any human that spent the night on the cursed soil would have only nightmares. A Year and a Day after the hurricane had collapsed, the effect had finally started weakening, retreating towards the shore. Nature reclaiming the land. But it was still a wasteland.

The Californian Wasteland. It would take decades to heal. In the process, geologists had determined that a significant chunk of the coast would fall into the sea. By the end of the century, San Diego would be an island.

So Wasp and Lexington played, and their sisters amused themselves as well. But one eye was always perked, one ear listening to the airwaves. Waiting for the call to sortie as submarines and scout planes kept an eye on the Pacific.

That Uwi-Class Panamax monster had slipped by once and now Japan and China were paying for it.
It would not do so again. The next time the Abyss tried it, the US San Diego Shipgirl Command would be ready for them. They just hoped their distant sisters could get to Japan in time to make a difference.

They did.

• • •

Missouri, and it was just Missouri, got out of bed and made sure that the covers were nice and flat. Making your bed in the morning was just common sense. She made herself a light breakfast and went out to greet the morning commuters from Hawai'i. The personnel that manned the old museum had stuck around after Raven's passing, but only Hawai'i was still inhabitable for humans. The edge of the hurricane had barely clipped its northern shores when Raven sailed her storm between Kauaʻi and Oʻahu.

Pearl Harbor was abandoned. The base anyway. There'd been a time in the war that the US had held it at the start and they'd reclaimed it once, when it looked like Midway would finally fall. These days, these were firmly Abysssal waters. Missouri didn't care. She was neutral, a museum ship. She'd seen both sides and could support neither. It was a cruel, pointless war started by idiots high on their own power and importance on both sides. Missouri would know. She'd been there.

No, the museum ship made her rounds and visited her old body, making sure everything was in top shape and that relief supplies were still flowing for everyone stuck on Hawai'i. That was the deal. Missouri would stay and Hawaii was off limits to Abyssal nonsense. What was left of it, anyway. An Anchorage Princess kept station off the coast of Hawai'i, but that girl liked to keep to herself and loved Missouri's cookies.

It was nice that at least some of the children weren't on the front lines anymore. She? She was old and had served her time. Missouri would protect her little slice of the world, and the rest could take care of itself. She needed to keep Pearl Harbor open, ready. Raven, and it was always Raven these days, needed a home to come back to, someday. Or she might never come back.

So Missouri would tend to her chores, sort out her paperwork and set up a table with coffee, tea and a bottle of German lager, near Hammer point, overlooking the entrance to the harbor. Watching the world. For she was a museum, and was it not their place to remember history even as they were themselves forgotten by the younger generations? Left in dusty old rooms until time wore them away. Silent witnesses to the world and the ebb and flow of history.

Missouri drank her coffee and closed her eyes. The museum ship reached into that place that made her unique in the world. She had been there, when Japan surrendered in WW2. Lingered far beyond her time, until she stood witness to the passage of entire generations. And she had held her soul and preserved her purpose. Remained a museum, a scholar seeking truth, a teacher. Any Abyssal that dared brave her waters, she would teach whatever she could. Whatever they would learn.

the ancient Shipgirl intoned, the echoes of her Soul Skill shaking the entire island.

For she was one of the first to wake and her power had only grown with practice. And Missouri practiced every single day. Now her eyes wandered past time and space. To things that were, had been and could be. Never would, never that, but could be. For she was the Blind Seer, party to every secret on the planet, and blind to the one that had been closest to her heart.

She could have stopped all this, but she'd been fucking blind for all her vision!

In her office, above her table, her mistake was immortalized, so she would never forget it. It was widely considered one of the finest pieces of investigative journalism and it was one. A masterpiece. But even a master could only compose with notes they knew and some of those secrets were buried deeper still. Not out of some malicious plan. But because shame had cut too deep to share the full story.

The title was large, two bolded big lines reading:

Below them, in smaller but still prominent letters the subtitles read:
"White house sources claim they were acting to contain a clear and present threat against the world."
"Hawaii and California acts of retaliation for the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction."

So she sat there, on that beach and witnessed. Watched for the moment that could make a meaningful difference in this pointless war. She saw Shanghai fall and would write a chronicle of the battle, another to be buried in her internal archives. Missouri watched Japan struggle on and the Court plot. She glimpsed half a dozen command centers and secret rooms. Few places in the world could keep her out.

She Witnessed A Promise that broke her out of her reverie. Something new. It was always hard, coming out of time viewing. The past was easier, the future forever murky. Missouri had lost herself more than once in the early days, going comatose for days.

Seeing through time left her drained and dry, weak as a newborn kitten. Of course Refuge was there, drinking her lager when Missouri came out of it. The German Submarine Princess helped her drink her sweetened coffee without even needing to be asked. Perière was good people and one of the few in this whole mess who hadn't made it worse. God knows Missouri did her part.

"I know something you don't." She sing-songed, in her most "spoiled little girl voice."
"Yes, you can have cake." Missouri interrupted. Perière was a simple girl at heart.

That neatly derailed whatever prank was in motion. It was best not to let her catch steam.
One pretend volcano eruption was enough for her heart. And the locals.

Perière jumped into the freezer bag so fast, only her legs were sticking out. It was a big bag. Shipgirls could put it away like professional athletes. Like a tiny hurricane soon the table was set with two cakes, the little Princess almost vibrating in her seat. Polite and waiting for Missouri to have the first bite. They talked of things, great and small, as was their way. Keeping each other sane in an insane world.

Finally, the point came back to the beginning. "Oh yeah, I do actually have a missive from Court. You're going to have some guests. I think you'll like this one, wrinkly bones." Very polite girl, filthy mouth though. Cursed like a sailor.

For the first time in a long time, Missouri was looking forward to tomorrow. It had such…possibilities.

In the end, her eyes strayed to the same spot they always did. Sixty-five miles South-West of Pearl Harbor, where it all began. The point of no return, where She had come, ragged and near death after the bombs, but still stubbornly holding on. Demanding answers and in answer served the death of a traitor for consorting with the enemy. Raven was born that day and the war became unavoidable. Perhaps, this time, Missouri could do better. She could hardly do worse.

One thing she was sure of. The world would not survive the rise of a second Abyssal Queen. The Pacific Ocean had not healed from the birth of the first. But she was no grand schemer, no great manipulator. All Missouri had was herself and her friends. She was a teacher. Maybe, this new kind of Princess would let herself learn.

That? That was a nice dream. Not remotely likely with how the Abyss and Shipgirls repelled one another, but a girl could dream, couldn't she?

All Missouri did was dream every day. It why she came here every day and set out coffee, beer and tea. Hoping that one day, a girl would join her. Any girl. But especially Her. That was her Dream.