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Ship Breaker

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I can't remember the last time I sailed anywhere.

Why am I even thinking about it? It's better than the alternative, that's why. Sunrise is poking in through my bedroom window. My alarm clock is chirping adorably. That sound used to make me smile.

In the mirror I look worse than I feel. All these bags under my eyes. What happened to my hair? I shower – which seems to be the closest I get to water lately – and look for something clean to wear. My uniform is hung up all nice and neat on the closet door. I never bother putting it on, not anymore. Orange jumpsuit it is.

It used to be orange, anyway. Now it's mostly faded red.

Our little island base is, to put it nicely, a little dilapidated. The bricks in the buildings are cracked. The cranes are splotched with rust. The morning is a gorgeous explosion of color across the eastern sky; part of me wonders why nobody else is out here to see it. Someone that can actually enjoy the sight. My factory is much less inviting. Dark. Cold. Only a few of the overhead lights still work. I keep asking for replacements, but…

There it is. The list on the wall by that damn door – a written manifest of today's new misery.

The following four ships are designated for scrapping: Inazuma, Naka, Atago, Kongou.

The Admiral

This is new. I've never been asked to scrap a battleship before – hell, he just got her, too. I don't know what seizes me to pick up the phone and call his office. I'm so thrown off by this request, I guess. "A-Admiral? I see the list, but-"

"What's wrong with it, Yuubari?"

Great. Every single time I hear his voice it's like he's pissed off at me. And every single time it stings, always delivering enough pain to stop me from standing up to him. "A battleship, sir? I mean, I've never done—had to do it before. Did something happen?"

"She's too expensive to maintain. That's all. You have your orders. Call me after she's been scrapped." He hangs up.

All that's left now is the wait. I find what tools I'll need – a big, obnoxious hammer, and a scalpel – and sit on the old bench by that door. The order on the list isn't necessarily when they'll come. I pray that's the case again. I don't want to see a kid first.

I can't take it.

An hour has gone by, according to the wall clock I can barely see across the room. The sound of rain on the metal roof has already lulled me to sleep twice. I could be doing equipment work, I guess, but what's the point? Why build something for someone that's gonna-

The doors open and scare me half to death. Naka dances in, a frilly parasol over her head and an undying smile in her eyes. Another grin for me to murder. Terrific. "Yuubari!" she chirps. "Am I getting remodeled? I can't believe it! I'm already so popular!"

This is the lie he uses to get unsuspecting girls down here. Remodeling. Some of them are too smart to fall for it. They get sent out on long expeditions to prevent any resistance. It gets harder the more girls he finds – I've been pretty busy scrapping troublemakers. I don't know how much longer he can hold command.

"Yuubari? What's with the hammer?"

Oh, right. I have work to do. "Huh? Uh..." I really should have hid this stupid thing somewhere. "Don't worry about it." I open the door. "Go on in, please."

She does, of course, daintily leaving her umbrella on the bench as she goes. Right into the darkness, in every sense of the word. I have to be the last one in. I have to wait until the last possible moment to turn the light on and slam the door shut behind me. Naka's screaming is so loud. And I forgot my earplugs. Why am I so stupid?

My little chamber used to have pleasant blue paint, I swear, but now it's all blood and fuel oil and steel shavings strewn along the floor. The table has seen better days. It's not the only one. She understands now. As usual, all her emotion is directed at me. "Why?!" she demands, voice breaking with the strain. "Everyone loves me! Th-this must be some mistake!"

I've literally lost count of the Nakas I've had to slaughter. It's like every third expedition is bringing one back. They last a few days, usually, before I happen to them. Of all the girls on the list, this death is going to be the easiest to swallow. "I'm sorry." Wow. I sound so disinterested. Because, well, I kinda am.

Which makes it infinitely worse for Naka. "I d-d-don't want to die! I'm too cute! Please, no!"

Nobody wants to die, you idiot. I realize I must look like a serial killer to her, looming with this hammer in my right hand. I am a serial killer. A navy-sanctioned serial killer. Huh. Never thought about myself like that before. She tries to run from me, slips on a puddle of – I don't even know what fluid that is – and bounces her chest off the corner of the table. At least it stops her from screaming. Gotta get her up on the table. Man, she's heavier than she looks. Once I've got the shackles down I relax. A little.

"Please… no..."

Back when I started doing this, the eyes would always get me. Not now. Especially not Naka. Cry all you want. You're nothing but material to me—wait. "No. That's… that's so wrong. Why did I think..."

Naka listens to me mutter to myself and thinks she's got an out. "Yeah! It's wrong!" she says around the pain. "If I did anything bad, I'm sorry! Was I off-key? Someone got mad at me for singing, right? I guess I should stop practicing at night, huh? Haha… ha… like, like Sendai..."

I've got my composure back now. Up goes the hammer, but I'm not aiming at her head. I have other spots to hit first. Naka panics. "No! No! Noooooo! No! Don't hurt me! Please! No! I'm sorry! I'm—grk!"

I know I've hit the right spot because of the certain sound it makes. A series of pathetic little cracks. She can still talk, but not nearly as loud. I raise the hammer again.

"Please, stop, it hurts so much… Yuubari… please..."

Two fuel.

"Unnngh… grk… agh… Yuu-"

Four ammo.

"Aaaahh… please..."

Eleven steel. Naka begs no more, her body limp and leaking a bi-colored mixture that I grab a few dented buckets to collect. With the scalpel I slice off and extract a few other precious bits for conversion, and that's it. Naka has sung and begged her last. The whole process only takes about fifteen minutes, but when I'm done it looks like I blew up a herd of cattle with land mines. Not even eight o'clock and I already need a spare jumpsuit. Good lord. One more thing to do before I get cleaned up, though.

As I exit the scrapping room, I cross her name off the list with my stained finger. Three more to go. Naka's umbrella is still on the bench. I pick it up and look at it for a moment. If I were in anywhere near a normal mindset, I'd probably say it looked nice. It does look nice.

Like everything else they leave behind, it goes into the garbage incinerator.

I know when they usually come to die, but it seems the bad weather's screwing everything up. The smart ones tend to arrive just after breakfast, lunch, or dinner. You know, a last meal and all. The dumb ones or the kids just show up whenever.

I'm worried about Inazuma. She should have been here by now. The little ones are always so eager to follow orders. Er… except Akebono. No wonder she's at sea so much. I did my best to look presentable just for Inazuma. New jumpsuit. No bloody hammer in sight. So where is she? I don't get it.

About eleven or so the doors open again as I'm hammering pointlessly at a block of steel. No Inazuma, though; Atago wanders in, wearing the most hollow smile I've ever seen. Rainwater drips all over the floor with her every step. Didn't bother with an umbrella. She knows she won't need one. The grown-ups usually have a good idea about what's going on, even if they hear the lie from him. Atago, it seems, is in that category.

"Good morning," she says politely.

"Yo. What's good about it?" We share a knowing look.

"I'm just being… friendly, I guess." Her eyes travel over to the door. "I don't understand."

I'm halfway through getting my jumpsuit all the way on when her remark stops me cold. "Understand what?"

Her smile fades away. "Why I'm being—hmm."

Oh no. Oh no. Why did I ask? This was so simple until I… she's smiling at me again. "Wh-what?"

"No, it's fine. This is probably hard enough for you as it is. I'll be quiet." I don't know how, but she manages to giggle. It makes me feel bitterly uncomfortable. She lets herself into the scrapping room, but before I can get in there she sheds her blue beret and gives it to me. "Please make sure Takao gets this, would you?"

"Uh, sure." That's not gonna happen. Admiral's orders. Nobody gets a physical memento.

"And please tell her… tell her goodbye for me..." Atago can't stave off the tears any longer.

"...yeah." This I will do, orders or not. I haven't had to often – most of my victims are too afraid to think about it – but if they ask, it gets done. I watch as she listlessly climbs onto my table and lays there. Little sobs escape her lips every now and then. I shackle her to the table and grab my tools. Up goes the hammer again.

Atago clenches her teeth even before I drive it down, but after the impact she lets out a long, low groan of distress. "Agh… that..." Then she tries to flail.

Yeah, I figured. This is usually how the smart ones die: they go in proud and quiet, then fall apart on the table or after I've whacked them the first time. Atago is bawling as I raise my hammer again. "I thought you were gonna be quiet?" That… that didn't come out right. It sounded so much more… mean, than I wanted. To cover for it I strike her again. What the hell is wrong with me today?

"Stop it, stop it, stop it… please… just wait a moment..."

Hold on. Wait for what? Her request stays my hand. "Huh?"

A few seconds pass as she composes herself. "I'm sorry for crying. Yuubari… it'll be okay. Go ahead."

I interpret her words as self-comfort and finish my work. Two more blows end her whimpering agony.

Only after I've finished her off with a blow to the head do I realize that she's got a point. Why did he want her scrapped? As far as I know, Atago was a sweetheart. Little bit of an airhead, sure, but surely not the type to be subversive. Hell, or even threatening. I don't understand what he could—damn it. Why am I only thinking about this now?! "When did I get so numb?" I ask Atago's lifeless body. "What… what happened?"

I already know. I feel like a machine by this point, just carving her up and collecting bits of what needs to be saved. Blood and oil trickle and splatter on the tile around my shoes. It all seems so far away, as if I'm watching it on television. "Sacrifices are necessary. Times are tough." The Admiral's words, not mine. It feels like they've been tough forever. Or at least as long as I can remember. Once I'm done disposing of Atago's body, something needles me to find the old pressure washer and clean this place up. Maybe it's boredom.

Or maybe I'm trying to figure out what the place looked like before this all started. I walk out to find the washer, but stop a few steps later. Atago's last words are bothering me.

Why did she say my name before saying it would be okay?

A few of these splotches won't come out, but by lunchtime I've got the scrapping room mostly clean. Mostly. The paint wasn't blue like I thought; it's teal. Or something. A lot greener than I remember. I got the floor color right, anyway. Nice and white again. Even the table is shiny now, if a little beaten up. Still no sign of Inazuma. I may as well go eat something. Maybe it'll distract me from thinking about Atago.

Thunder is the first thing that hits me when I get outside. No more rain, though. Not yet. Everywhere I look the sky is an angry gray. I only wander into the rest of the base once a day to eat. The looks I get from the others are too much. Especially if I've just scrapped someone they liked.

Takao, for instance. She sees me approaching the mess hall from a mile away and runs over. Time to be contrite. I don't think I remember how. "Did… did you?" she asks, utterly terrified.

"I'm sorry." Flat, again. I've forgotten what the word means. "She told me to tell you goodbye."

I don't think she knows what to say. We stare at each other for a while before she turns away and runs, choking on her sadness. A few of the little ones saw this whole exchange. They look at me. Pointing. Whispering. I try to ignore them and move on. I've got a little bit of a reputation. Nobody sits with me at my lunch table. They haven't for a long time.

There are points in my existence where I feel like I'm the only one here.

And across the aisle, I notice far too late, is Inazuma. Her hair, anyway, which is just about all I can see. Her sisters are clustered around her like a protective cloak. They are all glaring at me. That's why she hasn't shown up. They won't let her. I'm not going to snatch her from their grasp and drag her back with me, of course. I'm not that heartless. Yet. Maybe it's just a matter of time.

So I eat in silence while Akatsuki stares daggers into my soul. I can't—I won't meet her eyes. There's no point in making a bigger scene. She follows me outside when I'm done, purple hair flying around as we go down the steps. "What?" I ask. I don't know why I bother.

All she does is clench her fist. Tears cling to her cheeks. I have never seen her so angry before.

Before she starts screaming, or something, I walk off and head back toward the factory. Lightning hits the mountain northwest of our base. It leaves me blind for a second. When my sight returns, I see another girl heading in the same direction as the rain starts anew.

It's Kongou.

She sees me about the same time and comes back. "Hey hey hey! Where's your umbrella?"

"I forgot it." Because I no longer care about staying dry, or keeping up appearances.

Kongou tilts her ridiculous yellow parasol so it covers both our heads. "That's no good, 'Bari! You'll catch cold!"

Wait, what? "'Bari?" I don't… how can she be so chipper? There's nothing false about her smile. Did I miss something? "You—you know what's going on, right?"

"Of course I do!" But she goes no farther – there are a few others walking nearby. Only when we're back to my factory and the doors are shut does she speak again. "It's all right. I know." With a flourish she closes her umbrella and tosses it at a wall hook. The throw misses horribly. "Oops. Didn't aim enough, hahaha."

I'm missing something here, I just can't find a way to frame it into words. Kongou flashes me a huge grin. "Uh…?"

"I'm the first battleship you've ever scrapped, huh? I'm honored! I love being number one."

She's not acting right. "But you're gonna di-"

Kongou snaps up a hand and makes me go quiet. Her smile might be the sun, but her eyes are tempered steel. "It'll be worth it! Just trust me!"

What the fuck is going on? "Did I miss something?" My question causes Kongou to break out in peals of laughter. I stare helplessly at the sight.

"No, no you didn't. But the Admiral did, hee hee hee hee…" She waves at that door, still grinning. "Is this the place?"

"Well, yes, but..."

"Then let's go!" She flings it open herself and strides right in, leaving me a dumbstruck statue. No one… no one's ever greeted their own demise like this. I have no idea what to do. Eventually, I grab my hammer and follow her in. She's already lying on the table.

"Give me your best shot!" she says cheerfully.

I can't even swing it. Her smile – everything about her behavior – stops me. Instead I just look at her with my jaw slightly dropped. "I… I..."

"'Bari, you gotta do it! He'll get suspicious if you don't call!"

I've been embroiled in something, haven't I? "Can't I… can't I just lie to him?"

Kongou sits up and blinks a few times. "Oh. I didn't think of that. Good idea."

I have to admit, I don't know why I thought of it either. Two people come in here, but only one ever comes out. I've never had to lie about scrapping before. Kongou lies back down on the table. "What are you doing?"

She bares teeth with her latest smile, sight locked on the single light above us. "There's a chance he might come in here to make sure you're following orders. Just hit me once."

"If you say so." So I swing the hammer down on her torso – I honestly have no idea where to hit a battleship to pop them like I do all the other classes – and wince at her reaction.

Rather, her lack of one. She's still grinning so wide. Tears gather in her eyes and soon start to trickle down her face. "N-nice shot. I… ow."

"Are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?"

"Inazuma… oh, you really took my breath away! Pff. Ugh. Inazuma blabbed on the Admiral to higher headquarters. He thinks he sent Maya on an expedition but, hee hee. She's gonna be back here in a little while with reinforcements."

The first bit of this goes right over my head. "Blabbed about what?"

"All the unnecessary scrapping he's been doing."

"The..." My hammer falls to the floor. I hear a tile crack; the sound is lost in the horror creeping through my brain. "Unnecessary?"

"Yeah! Aieee..." Kongou hefts herself upright again. "Atago told me the first time we met, 'that girl has seen some awful things.' I was trying to figure out some excuse to get out here and talk to you, but everyone on base said that nobody bothers with equipment. I got super curious. Then Inazuma told me the truth about him."

Damn it. That explains Atago. It hadn't occurred to me until now that Inazuma might have been the first ship he ever commanded. I wasn't here for that. I wonder what else she knows? No wonder her sisters formed a phalanx around her. No wonder Akatsuki was so angry. She thinks I'm the Admiral's grim reaper, that I'd steal Inazuma and make her disappear. I wonder if she knows how close that is to being true.

"Hey, 'Bari? You look like you're worried. It's okay. Headquarters won't pin anything on you. You were following, er, technically lawful orders, that's all!" Kongou's unconquerable smile fades in the face of the sheer disgust that must be in my eyes. "H-how long was he making you do this stuff?"

"It's almost all I can remember." That, and the faces. The names. The screaming. The dozens of ships I have broken for apparently no reason. Now it's over? "He made me do-"

Kongou is on me in a hug before I can finish. I hear her wispy hisses of pain. "Not much longer. Just hang in there." Faint screaming from beyond the open door grabs both our attention. "Uh oh."

"Atago didn't have to die, did she?"

"We couldn't stall any longer. I wanted to go in her place, but she said I needed to be here when Maya got back."

I got my question wrong. None of them had to die. Kongou leads me back onto the main factory floor. I hear gunfire now. "What's happening?" I know what's happening. The end is happening.

"Let's go see! Ugh." She leads me out into a terrific downpour, wincing and sucking in sharp breaths of air. Military police are running around all over the place. A few see us, but ignore us and move on. So many are going to the Admiral's office. Under Kongou's urging we follow them, but she can't run as fast with the beating I gave her. By the time we arrive the Admiral is being roughly forced down the front steps of the headquarters. His wrists are in shackles. His hat is missing. He stares at me until he notices Kongou. The sight of her makes him shriek with rage.

She blows a raspberry at him as he's hauled away. His white hulk fades beyond a wall of raindrops and black-clad soldiers. The Admiral is no more.

I am free.

I stay in the factory while the chaos unfolds because I have no idea where else to go. I feel most comfortable here, as sick as that sounds relative to everything I've done. Last I heard, Maya and Choukai had taken temporary command of the base while awaiting a replacement from the mainland. Kongou took her leave and retired to the docks, praising my powerful blow as she left. Nobody from the base proper has come to see me. I imagine they're all afraid.

Maybe they hate me too much. Maybe I killed the only one that cared.

There is a little solace in the list, still plastered to the wall where I left it this morning. Naka and Atago's names are crossed off. Kongou and Inazuma's names are not, nor will they ever be. I've swung my last killing blow. My list is unfinished. And I have no idea what to do next. I can't stay here. Everyone hates me.

I can't leave, either. I'm too broken to fit in anywhere else. I wonder if I can scrap myself?

Suddenly, I notice Akatsuki standing in the factory's open doorway, sheltered from the drizzle under a black umbrella. "Uh, M-miss Yuubari?"

"Yes?" I don't know what to say. I haven't had much need to converse. I feel so weird seeing a ship girl that I'm not about to end.

"Miss Maya says you should come to the headquarters building." With that, she darts away into the rain and leaves me confused instead of lonely.

"For what?" I ask the muggy air. No amount of brain-racking gets me an answer, so I oblige the request and wander out. At my leisurely pace, it takes me ten minutes to get there. Another five to find his former office. I… when was the last time I was here?

Maya isn't the only one I find. A weepy Takao stands by the picture windows, her back to my arrival. Two girls with purple hair wearing black are by the empty secretary's desk. I've never seen them before. One has an eye patch, the other a metal halo suspended above her head.

Nobody speaks, so I have to. "You wanted to see me?"

"Kinda." Maya looks toward Atago's crying sister. "Do you need a minute?"

"I'm fine." She doesn't sound like it. A little time passes before she stops crying. Her trembling fades away. And then she faces me. "Are you all right?"

Huh? I'm not the one crying. "I'm okay, I guess."

There's no way for me to really describe the looks I get, especially from Maya. Takao speaks again. "Are you? I mean, honestly?"

I just said I was. My head tilts with confusion.

Then she hits me with, "I'm not angry at you for scrapping Atago."

"Oh. That's-" That's not what I was worried about. She could have killed me ages ago if she were angry. More weird looks. Are they…

Are they more sad than I am?

"Ahem." Maya tries to seem prim and proper. She doesn't have the air for it. "We need your records, Yuubari. As evidence."

"I'll go get them." Like someone just asked me for paperwork, without all the bloody implications. Why do I feel so detached from my own brain?

"All right. Oh, and there's someone comin' to look over your equipment. Should be here soon."

This is the first part of the conversation to really get a rise out of me. "Who?"

Maya first gives me a full shrug before saying, "Dunno. Phone call wasn't long enough for me to ask."

Before I depart, Takao steps in front of me and gives me a painfully tight hug. "Uh… ow..." I breathe. She doesn't let go until a moment later.

As her arms uncoil, she mumbles, "It's going to be okay."

Huh. Atago told me the same thing and I still don't quite know what she meant. I'm finally out of there, anyway. When I get outside I see the sun has come out. That's nice. Everything looks so pretty. So… so different. Everything's different. My life was death. Now that's over, what am I?

For an instant I think it's raining again. No. It's the tears streaming down my face as I walk. All I've done was send ship girls into the nothing for a year – two years, even. And that nothingness finally found me.

I can't take this.

Noise comes from the factory as I approach, and I'm not making it. Inside I find someone with long pink hair done up in red tress ribbons, fiddling with the overhead crane controls. A lot of metal adorns her white and blue uniform. "Who are you?" I snap. It comes out weak and hollow.

My question badly startles her. "Whoa!" A few deep breaths later, she's collected enough to explain. "Sorry. I'm Akashi. They sent me out here to assess the base."

Akashi… in the days when I used to fix things instead of destroy them, her name was a breathed legend. It's been so long since I cared about repair work, I forgot what she looked like. "Uh… right. They told me someone was coming."

"Yeeeeaaaah..." I don't like her inflection. It's like an audible version of the looks new girls would give me. 'Oh. Stay away from her. She's weird.' My face twists with bitterness. "I know what you're feeling. I've been there too."

...and I'm instantly disarmed. "How can you know?" I sound pissed all of a sudden.

Her mouth twitches a little before a strange smile appears. "My Admiral – the new base commander, but keep that between us for now – had me scrapping ships too. Except she seemed to notice what it did to me. I've heard yours, uh, didn't. Or, more correctly, he didn't give a damn."

I can't find anything to say to that. I end up staring oddly at her until she notices my silence.

"I remember my first," she says. "Fubuki. She begged so much. Didn't understand why the Admiral would get rid of her very first ship. I heard her screaming in my nightmares for three months afterward."

Akashi helps me realize just how bad I've got it. "I can't even remember the first one I scrapped."

She releases the controls and stares at me. Her horror is beyond words. "Wow… that's awful." Her shoes scuff across the concrete as she walks over.

Yes, it is awful. I'm about to get crushed by it. The air feels like molten lead. "Did I ever do anything good in here?" I mutter, looking around.

Gently, Akashi takes my hand and leads me to the back of the building. There's another door in the corner, one I haven't used in… I don't know when. It goes to the wharves. The sun beams down on our heads, but an evil cloud shelf looms to the west. "Come on. Sit. Look at the sea."

Fine. Whatever. I can breathe better out here. A little.

"When was the last time you sortied?"

An emptiness sticks to my lungs. I feel like I swallowed an iceberg. "I don't remember. All he had me do was scrap."

"Yeah. There was a time I had to do a lot of it myself. The kids were the hardest." For the briefest moment, there's another me sitting over there. Akashi's eyes are fixed to memories a million miles away – until she glances over and smiles again. "You're not alone. Not now. You wanna talk?"

Well, here's a new concept. Not being alone. It takes me some seconds to digest the idea. I guess this really isn't the best icebreaker, but… "Did you ever scrap a Naka?"

Her hair sways with the shaking of her head. "Nah. We never had one at our old base. Did you?"

"Dozens. Fifty, maybe."

"That is messed up. No wonder high command wants to try this guy."

"It..." Uh oh. Now that I've got someone to bounce my perspective off of, I can't hide any longer. "It really is messed up, isn't it?"

Akashi tilts her upper body, leaning on her arms as she stares into the sky. "Makes you numb after a while. Thank goodness I had a decent commander. Hey, now so do you!" She reaches out and gives me a solid punch in the shoulder. "You look like you've been crying."

What embarrasses me is why. Thinking about it makes me cry again. "All I've been doing is killing. I've forgotten how to do anything else."

"Ah, don't say that. Even if it were true, you've got me now. The point is you're not by yourself. Even if you think you are."

I lay back on the warm concrete and stare. "I could never stand up to him. He backed me into a corner and made me do… such terrible things."

Akashi cracks a sad smile. "Yeah. My Admiral told me a little about it. Don't worry. She's a softie. You won't be scrapping nearly as much."

I rotate my head to look at her. "But I'll still be scrapping?"

"No, not right away. I'll probably handle it for a couple of weeks while we see to you." Her eyebrows raise at my disbelief. "Look, we tried to do a no-scrapping policy and let me tell you, things went to hell pretty fast. Some scrapping is necessary."

Anger floods my heart as I sit up. "That's the same thing he said to me!" I shout bitterly.

Her hands fly up in submission. "Whoa. Whoooooa. We're not gonna make you do anything. Or even make you feel like we are, if we can help it. Give us a shot. If it doesn't work, she'll grant you a transfer. Neither of us is gonna back you into a corner."

My heavy breathing fades with the thought. A transfer? "Where would I go? I know there must be rumors. The whole fleet probably thinks I'm crazy."

"Hey now. That's no way to talk." She punches me again, a little lighter this time. "Tell you what – I'll explain what we tried and why it failed. Then you can make up your own mind. Okay?"

I can't resist the possibility of data to analyze. I bet she knows it, too. "...fine. I have records to pull for Maya first," I say, standing up and brushing off the back of my jumpsuit.

She follows my lead, grimacing at the number the concrete has done to her legs. "It's a date, then." Once we're back inside, she adds, "Can I trust you with something classified?"

I purse my lips at the question. "Considering all the secrets I've kept? You tell me."

"Ahaha… fair point. Uh..." Akashi looks like me again, awkward and silent. "When you kill a ship girl, their spirit leaves and forms a new body. But they don't remember their previous lives as people. That's why you can find them floating out at sea sometimes. They've just been born again."

She was trying to help, I know, but I default to the most pessimistic interpretation because, well… that's been my life. "So I've been killing the same Naka over and over again? Comforting."

Eyes on the floor, she rubs the nape of her neck and laughs awkwardly. "No, no, you can have copies. Trust me, I know. I guess—you were setting them free. If your Admiral treated them as bad as I've heard, they would have been miserable here. You gave them a chance to find someone who would care about them."

I shouldn't believe her. She's probably lying. Despite my cynicism, though, it really does help. A little. "Are you making this up?"

Akashi raises her right hand. "No, I swear. My commander was working on some project that was trying to bring incomplete ship girls to life so we could deploy them in battle. She did a lot of experimental work. Top secret stuff. Uh, don't tell anyone I said that either."

"So I was helping them, in a way?" That doesn't take off much of the edge of the terrified screams I've heard, but at least it gives me something else to think about. "I still don't see how you can put a positive spin on what I've done."

Another recollection steals Akashi away for a moment again. The horror in her green eyes is immense. And yet, she still tries to smile. "'Cause the alternative, believe it or not, is so much worse than you can imagine."