Present Day: The Legend of Penglai Island (1)

Penglai. The island of the immortals. A land that remained ever-young, shrouded in secrecy. A land of wonders and miracles, where even death held no sway. A land that captured the imagination of entire dynasties, and a land that, until recently, was thought only to be myth.

A fitting name for the anomaly that appeared one day in the center of East China Sea.

Based on assorted intelligence, Penglai is the name given to a tiny, heavily forested island that literally appeared in the middle of the East China Sea. Half-covered by mountains, the other half in immaculately maintained gardens, the island looked like something out of A Journey to the West. Certainly it must be inhabited by someone. Those beautiful pagodas couldn’t have built themselves, and the symmetrical nature of the landscape – the location of gardens, ponds, pools, waterfalls, and everything else – suggested that the designer had an eye for the classics in literature.

Yet this tiny island has so far evaded all attempts at uncovering its secrets. Formal records of  the island’s existence go as far back as 1971. However, attempts to land and formally investigate or even stake a claim went nowhere, because the island just isn’t there. Oceanographic patrols, sent out by the major world powers, combed the area – strategically important and resource-rich – with finesse and found nothing. When official satellite scans of the area came up empty as well, it was enough for both the JMSDF (Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force) and the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) to dismiss its sighting as mere equipment malfunction or accidental hallucination.

Officially, Penglai does not exist, and both sides were initially content to leave it at that. To suggest the contrary would be adding an additional burden to the already delicate situation between China and Japan. Tensions in East Asia, never low to begin with, were accelerated to an all-time high by what STEC now refers to as the Hyuuga incident. It took a monumental amount of diplomatic and economic maneuvering to avoid bloody escalation, and the resulting fallout left both local powers – China and Japan – all but politically spent. Were it not for a small cadre of far-sighted leaders on both sides, it is probable that the abyssals would not even need to invade. The world, such as it was, would have done itself in.

Of course, the world did not end, and war did not occur. And so the little island sat mostly ignored. A year later, Japanese shipgirls first noticed the unusual little island on their routine patrols. Most observed it matter-of-factly, thinking it was just one of the hundreds of rocks that made up the current territorial feud between their home country and their neighbor across the water. It wasn’t until a STEC strikeforce chasing after the latest abyssal scout wandered into the East China Sea that the NKT (Nihon Kaigun Tokusentai – the Japanese shipgirl service or STEC equivalent) first realized that there may be something more there.

Like Penglai’s conventional satellite signature, the abyssal scout suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. The world’s shipgirl agencies collectively freaked out, and for the next week every single available shipgirl was combing the Eastern China Sea, looking for clues or some proof of the abyssal’s demise (no easy feat, given the biological properties of the abyssal units encountered).

They found nothing. No anecdotal evidence, no environmental residues, nothing.

Reluctantly and with great suspicion, STEC and the other shipgirl agencies declared the abyssal scout eliminated, and the area soon returned to normalcy. After all, one does not simply allow an abyssal free reign of the oceans – the consequences would be horrifying. Simply not finding a potential threat as such was unsatisfactory, and could potentially be a great security risk.

Three months later, another abyssal scout appeared. This time, it was in the South China Sea. As it went north, the PLAN called in reinforcements. Like the previous time, the abyssal disappeared without warning, never to reappear again. Two weeks later, abyssal elements, fleeing from a shipgirl response, stumbled into the East China Sea again. Once again, like their predecessors, they simply vanished.

Needless to say, this caused no shortage of white hairs and stress in the command structure of the various ship girl agencies. Almost all countries immediately connected recent events with that mysterious island occasionally showing up as footnotes in operational logs, and opinions were charged. Roughly a quarter of the officers and strategists thought that perhaps like the shipgirls, this island thing was another opponent of the abyssal fleet. Another quarter viewed the events with suspicion, with many from the NKT arguing that there should be a permanent, possibly clandestine, garrison in the area in case this was an abyssal plot. The logic was sound. If this is something friendly, then how come it’s accessible to nobody? The Chinese delegation naturally pushed back strongly against this suggestion, with some acridly pointing out the sheer political absurdity of allowing Japan to maintain a military garrison in regions currently under heavy dispute. The rest all have theories and opinions, ranging from undiscovered technology, an unknown or unaffiliated shipgirl or other power, or simple unexplained phenomena, but virtually no one agreed on what the implications may be or how best to proceed.

While discussions were underway, the NKT, as usual, flew solo. Their methodology consisted of some very questionable tactical decisions involving overt manipulation of abyssal units and diversionary trajectories. Amid great protest by pretty much everyone (including some of their own shipgirls), the NKT managed to “conclusively” prove that the island, or at least the sea near the island, was doing something to the abyssals. The half-dozen abyssals vanishing in a later skirmish, with at least one visibly seen to be disintegrating, was enough to shift the tempo and the topic to Penglai itself.

No longer seen as a waste of precious shipgirl hours, the study of Penglai was now invested in earnest by the shipgirl agencies. Turns out, while Penglai was undetectable by conventional satellites, it burned like a blazing star on the screens of MERLIN, STEC’s own intelligence network, provided certain frequencies and parameters be adjusted. Shipgirls scanning and scouting the region report a comforting feeling, not unlike that of fairies, and so far, the readings seem to measure up with the idea that it was something neutral or even benign.

Still, Penglai was inaccessible. Reason? Unknown. Mahan suspects that it is some sort of defense mechanism not unlike Avalon’s own protective fields, something designed to obfuscate targeting on a much more localized scale. Others, such as Northampton or Mary, has put forth theories that are admittedly more divine in nature. Perhaps one needed to be of a particular disposition to enter. Certainly it’s far-fetched, but so is the very idea of an abyssal-killing island, no?

Yet determination of worthiness is fundamentally absurd. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven or disproven, nor are there even experimental conditions one could test. Other than anecdotal impressions of shipgirls and the rare fairy witness, there is nothing to go off of. If, it is as some suggest, that the island seemed to possess a mind of its own, then it is clear that whatever sentience or intelligence present is simply unwilling or unable to make human contact.

While the rest of the world experimented and studied, China took a different approach. Bereft of shipgirls or fairies, China did its part by providing the one thing it had in abundance over every other country: manpower.  Mobilizing its massive reserves under the pretext of military exercise, the PLA sent as many men as they can into the area, trying to glean its secrets using sheer, brute force. Meanwhile, party officials from the central political committee combed ancient texts for inspiration, even as their comrades from the cultural bureau scoured the countryside for monks, wanderers, and “unusual characters.”

To an outside observer, such actions seem to be nothing more than grasping at straws. The irony, of course, is not lost on PRC officials – after all, their task would have been made considerably easier if this mission was carried out fifteen years ago. Yet when straws are all that one has, one can hardly fault the attractiveness of unconventional solutions. After all, it is said that man will turn to other sources of faith should science fail to deliver.

Peiying, commander-candidate, was only the latest one out of many to try his hand at unlocking its secrets. His tiny boat creaked in protest as it inched towards what he thought was the silhouette to his destination. The twenty-something man’s brow was creased with sweat as he rowed in complete silence. Behind him, barely a few kilometers off, the engines of two modern navy vessels rumbled. One ship flew the Eight-One pennant of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, while the Rising Sun fluttered atop the silhouette of a Kongou-class destroyer of the Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Ostensibly engaged in “joint humanitarian exercises” as part of a demonstration of good-will against the backdrop of escalating tensions, the truth was that two commanding officers watched the developing situation with some dread, and minimal anticipation. Neither one really expected much out of the trip today, but on rare occasions, one or two individual might be close enough to snap a few blurry photos – enough to prove that the island that they’re after is real, and enough to keep the man-powered search effort on life support.