The aeronauts windlass, p.55
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.55
 

           Jim Butcher

  “If I had, her ship, seeing help on the way, would certainly have unlimbered her guns and engaged us. We could likely have destroyed her, but doing so would have cost us precious time in delay, and we would have been unlikely to do it with our shroud intact.” The captain glanced toward the rear of the ship and said, “We need every bit of power we have to keep us moving and to fuel the shroud if we are to have a chance of survival. Releasing Captain Ransom was an implicit truce, and the least evil option available to me.”

  “I see,” Gwen said. “Am I interfering with the ship’s operation by being here?”

  Again he began a quick reply, and again restrained himself for a few seconds before answering. “Not at present,” he said. “Currently we are underway. It remains to be seen whether we can escape Itasca.”

  “Ah,” Gwen said. “I thought you should know, Captain, that Master Ferus’s gear has been returned to him. He and Miss Folly are in the infirmary now.”

  Grimm arched a brow and turned fully to her for the first time since she’d arrived on the bridge. “Will he be able to help my men?”

  “He said he would try,” Gwen said. She gave her head a little shake. “The poor old man looked awful.”

  “He’s had a difficult time of it the past few hours,” Grimm answered. He flipped down the telescoptic mounted on his goggles and peered past Gwen for several seconds before he grimaced and said, “They’re breaking out their chase guns.”

  Kettle turned his head and squinted back at the shape of an airship far astern. Itasca, Gwen assumed. “From there?” the pilot said, his tone annoyed. “They must have the new-model bow guns.”

  “So much for that advantage,” Grimm said.

  “Are we going to give battle, then, Captain?” Gwen asked.

  “Not for very long,” Kettle said darkly from his control station.

  “Itasca is a battlecruiser, Miss Lancaster,” Grimm said, by way of explanation. “She’s a great deal larger and more heavily armed and armored than Predator. We cannot realistically survive a pitched battle with her.”

  “Then we are running from her?” Gwen asked.

  “We’re trying,” Kettle said.

  “I know nothing of aerial combat, Captain,” Gwen said. “But . . . would it not be wise to descend into the mist and avoid action that way?”

  “Under most circumstances, Miss Gwen, that is exactly what I would do,” Grimm answered.

  Gwen looked over the side of the ship. “And yet we seem to be ascending.”

  Grimm nodded. “Itasca was fully under way by the time we spotted her, while we were standing still. It was necessary for us to open as much distance as possible as quickly as possible, and we’re lighter than Itasca. All that armor plate weighs her down. It takes Predator relatively less energy to ascend, so to keep pace with us, she has to reduce power from her other systems to maintain an ascension as she moves forward.”

  “By running up as well as away, Predator was quicker off the mark?” Gwen asked.

  Grimm nodded in approval. “Just so. Doing so kept Itasca from catching up to us and overwhelming us immediately.”

  “And once you’re sure we’re out of her cannon range, you’ll dive back down?” Gwen asked.

  “Normally, yes,” Grimm said with a grimace. “But Journeyman hasn’t finished putting the ship back together. She’s not running at her best, and she’s not able to handle a combat dive yet. We could descend slowly, but if we do so, Itasca will be able to use her weight and momentum to make up distance on us and bring us within range of her guns.”

  “Then what are we going to do?” Gwen asked.

  “Run like hell and pray,” Kettle said.

  Grimm stiffened suddenly and said, “She’s firing her chasers. Evasive starboard.”

  Gwen turned to look behind them. There was a bright flash of scarlet-and-white light from the pursuing ship, and a brilliant little pinpoint like a tiny star appeared and grew swiftly, unsettlingly larger. Even as she saw that, the ship heaved beneath them as Kettle took her into a swift bank, then settled her down again almost immediately onto her original course. Gwen’s stomach flopped and wobbled, and despite her secured safety lines, she was all but thrown from her feet.

  She could not take her eyes from the incoming fire as she did. It flashed across the distance between the two ships in no more than a breath, growing and growing as it came. The sphere of energy detonated perhaps fifty yards ahead of the ship and far off to their port side, erupting into a cloud of pure fire, roiling flame dozens of yards across. The explosion was loud enough to make the planking of the deck vibrate. Gwen felt herself flinch from both the sound and the intensity of the light. “God in Heaven,” she breathed. “What happens if that hits us?”

  “We’re at the edge of her range,” Grimm replied. “When the energy of the blast is that dispersed, our shroud is best able to absorb it. Predator can take numerous direct hits from this distance.”

  “But our web isn’t so lucky,” Kettle said.

  “I don’t understand,” Gwen said.

  “Incoming fire,” Grimm said again. “Evasive port.”

  Once more Gwen’s stomach lurched as Kettle wove in the opposite direction for a few breathless seconds, then trimmed Predator neatly. Again a thundercloud of fire burst to one side of the ship—but this time there were flickers of light at the very edge of the translucent cobwebs of her starboard ethersilk web.

  “As you can see,” Grimm said, “our ethersilk web extends beyond the protection offered by Predator’s energy shroud. The web is vulnerable to incoming fire.”

  “Could you not shorten it to bring it within the shroud’s protection?” Gwen asked. “Would that not protect the web?”

  “And reduce our velocity proportionately as a result,” Grim replied. “We’d slow to a crawl. Incoming. Evasive ascension.”

  Gwen was all but flung down to the deck as Predator abruptly climbed. She felt certain that her stomach was doing its best to share her skull with her brains before Kettle leveled out again. She found herself gripping the railing desperately to maintain her footing. This time the blast exploded a shade further ahead of the ship, if a good deal below. Which meant that Itasca was closer to Predator than she had been the previous shot. Which meant . . .

  “Then that’s why Itasca is shooting at us,” Gwen said. “She’s trying to burn away enough of our web to slow us down, so she can kill us.”

  “We call it raking the web, Miss Gwen,” Grimm said politely. “And that is exactly what she means to do. We can keep the distance open by continuing to ascend, force her to run uphill after us for a time.”

  “Why?” Gwen asked. “What happens then?”

  “We run out of up,” Kettle said with a grim chortle. “Go up too far, and the air is too thin to breathe.”

  Gwen felt a little short of breath already. “Then what hope have we?”

  “Itasca is overpowered, even for her size,” Grimm said. “She’s running three core crystals at maximum to keep this pace with us—and she’ll be running her steam turbine all-out too. That means her systems are more complex, more prone to overheating, component failure, and other technical problems.”

  “She can sprint as fast as we can,” Kettle clarified. “But we can keep up this pace for days at a time. It’s what we’re made to do.”

  Grimm nodded. “The longer we can keep this race going, the more likely something is to give on Itasca. Incoming, evasive starboard.”

  Kettle wove the ship to one side, and this time Itasca’s bow gun claimed a small portion of Predator’s web on the port side.

  “Can’t you duck any further to one side?” Gwen asked.

  “The more we weave side to side while Itasca runs in a straight line, the more distance she makes up on us,” Grimm said. “Mister Kettle knows his business.”

  “Unfortunately,” Kettle said sourly. “We don’t get lucky, we’re going to get to knock off work before lunch, Skip.”

  “I’ll accept luck
if we can find any,” Grimm acknowledged. “But be of good hope, Mister Kettle. Itasca’s web is vulnerable too. She can’t dodge. And she should just about be within range.” He turned to a speaking tube and called out, “Stern gunnery deck, bridge.”

  Creedy’s voice came back out of the speaking tube, tinny and distant. “Stern guns, aye.”

  “Rake her web, XO,” Grimm said. “Fire at will.”

  “Fire at will, aye,” Creedy said.

  A second later there was a howl of discharging cannon, and a bluewhite sphere of fire of their own went hurtling back toward the Auroran ship. The explosion looked tiny in the distance, and there was an odd, long delay before its cough of distant thunder caught up with Predator. Gwen noted a faint shimmer in the air, and realized that she was looking at a large section of ethersilk web being burned away.

  “Excellent shooting, Creedy,” Grimm called into the speaking tube, even as Kettle threw the ship into another sharp ascension to avoid fire. “Pour it on.”

  “Aye, sir!” came Creedy’s voice. “Thank you sir!”

  “Why,” Gwen said, “if we keep shooting like that, we’ll lose her in no time.”

  “Except she hangs a lot more web than we do, miss,” Kettle said. “She keeps a lot more web in her reels than Predator can. And she’s got three times the chase armament we do.”

  Gwen felt somewhat indignant at these facts. “Well. That hardly seems fair.”

  Captain Grimm chuckled beneath his breath. “Itasca’s made for exactly this kind of work,” he said.

  “Then how will you defeat her?” Gwen asked.

  Grimm held on as Kettle wove through another evasive maneuver. The two aeronauts took it in stride, evidently staying upright through an act of sheer, unconscious will. Gwen felt as though her stomach had decided to depart her body for warmer climes, and she desperately struggled to keep from retching in front of the captain and Mister Kettle.

  “Without the ability to dive, I can’t,” Grimm said. “I’ll keep raking her web, but eventually, probably within the next half hour, she’s going to take down enough of ours to overhaul us and pound us to bits.”

  “I . . . see . . .” Gwen said. She swallowed. “I don’t suppose her captain will give up?”

  “Why would he?” Grimm asked. His teeth showed in a sudden, feral smile. “He knows it as well as I do, after all. Barring an act of fortune on our behalf, the outcome of this chase is inevitable.”

  “Oh,” Gwen said. “You have a plan of some sort, then.”

  “Of sorts,” Grimm said. He put a hand on the rail as the ship rocked wildly to the side again, and more web was chewed away by the heat of the blast. A distant boom marked the detonation of a shot from Predator’s lone stern cannon.

  Gwen frowned, and considered his words for a moment. “Captain Grimm,” she said. “You knew escape was nearly hopeless from the beginning.”

  “Yes.”

  “Then if your goal was simply to escape, and remaining within sight of Itasca was certain death, it follows that risking a dive was our most sensible option. Granted the ship may not have been able to take the strain, but it seems even the dire risk of that offers better odds for survival than this chase.”

  Grimm nodded again. “Precisely true.”

  Gwen frowned at him. “A gambit, then?”

  “We’ve been marking our path with signal rockets since we left Spire Albion. Currently, we are following our original course back toward the Spire. If our signals have been spotted, and if any ships of the Fleet have elected to follow us, we may have support—and if so, we may be able to take Itasca.”

  “There are a great many ‘if’s in that statement, Captain,” Gwen noted.

  “Yes.”

  “You are risking everyone’s life in an effort to take a single enemy ship.”

  Grimm arched an eyebrow, and his manner became intent. “Not just a ship. A storied enemy ship, Miss Lancaster. Whether or not official statements have been made, we are now at war with Spire Aurora— a war that they are winning, handily, given the damage they’ve inflicted to the Landing shipyards.”

  “And you believe the loss of a single ship will counter that sort of blow?”

  “Objectively, no,” Grimm said. “But wars are not simply about objective measurements. They are about will, Miss Lancaster, about belief. The disruption the Aurorans will cause to our economy will not be remotely equal to the loss of any single ship—but if we can counter by taking down a ship like Itasca, we might reduce entirely the damage done to the fighting spirit of all of Albion. It is vital that we not be made to seem wholly helpless in the opening moments of the war. Once a nation ceases to believe that they can win a war, that war is lost.”

  Gwen frowned. “And . . . you’re willing to risk the lives of your crew on such a prospect.”

  “And yours, miss,” he said quietly.

  “On the chance that a friendly ship might have seen your signal rockets.”

  “It is less a gambit than a throw of the dice,” Grimm said. He had turned back to watch ahead of the ship, rocking easily as Kettle took her through another evasive maneuver. “But they are my dice.”

  “What if Itasca breaks off? Surely she knows you are running toward Albion, toward our Fleet.”

  Grimm tilted his head, as if he had never considered the question before. “Hmm. Then I suppose we return home with minor damage, easily repaired. But she won’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “Her captain was sent out to bring Predator down last month, to make a statement. He missed us. A captain put in command of a ship like Itasca will be professional, brilliant, ambitious, and hungry, miss. He won’t want to go home without feathering his cap with Predator’s wreckage.”

  There was a sharp whistle from below, and a moment later the bridge speaking tube rattled with a tinny voice. “Bridge, ventral lookout!”

  Captain Grimm turned to the speaking tube. “Bridge here, proceed.”

  “Contact, Skipper!” came an aeronaut’s excited voice. “Five miles dead ahead of us, down at the cloudline. Skip, I think it’s Glorious! She’s descended into the mist and is ready to pop up.”

  “Hah!” Grimm said, smiling fiercely. “Good eyes, Mister MacCauley. Mister Kettle, when?”

  Kettle squinted ahead of them and then glanced back at Itasca, taking Predator through another lateral slalom as he considered the question. “Start a gradual descent now, Skipper,” Kettle said. “They’ll build up speed and momentum on us. They’ll close the range, but it’ll keep their eyes on us and make it that much harder for them to pull out when they spot Glorious.”

  Grimm nodded sharply and folded his gloved hands behind his back. “Concur. Proceed.”

  Kettle nodded and, after his next evasive maneuver, put the ship on a downward angle that made Gwen’s stomach rather unsettled, as the whole of the sky seemed to open up from the unfettered vista offered from the ship’s bridge.

  “Glorious,” Gwen said, fighting back flutters in her stomach. “That’s Commodore Rook’s ship, is it not?”

  “Yes,” Grimm said in a severely polite, rigidly neutral tone. “I believe it is.”

  “Can’t believe we’re polishing the apple he’s about to pick,” Kettle muttered.

  “Now, now, Mister Kettle,” Grimm said. “There’s a very great deal of angry Itasca behind us. I am well contented to have help from any ship in the Fleet, under the circumstances.”

  Kettle muttered something darkly beneath his breath, and Gwen frowned at the pilot. “Captain? Is there a matter for concern here?”

  That Grimm paused for a thoughtful moment before he answered spoke volumes in direct contrast to his words, Gwen thought. “Not particularly,” he said. “Glorious is a battlecruiser as well, equal to the task of engaging Itasca, and Commodore Rook has a solid, competent Fleet crew.”

  “I note, sir,” Gwen said, “that you do not say that Commodore Rook is solid and competent.”

  “That is not my place to judge,
Grimm replied steadily. “He has advanced quite capably through the ranks.”

  Kettle snorted heavily, soaring through another arc to avoid the rapidly expanding shape of an enemy blast sphere.

  “He’s a pompous, lecherous ass,” Gwen noted calmly, “devoid of the wit God in Heaven gives to a simpleton, but he has a certain ratlike cunning, I suppose. He looks pretty enough in a uniform, too.”

  Grimm turned his head sharply toward her, and then away again. She could tell by the tightening in his cheek, seen in rear profile, that he was smiling. “I would not presume to contradict your opinion, Miss Lancaster,” he said.

  “That’s because the skipper don’t fight battles he can’t win, Miss Gwen,” Kettle noted.

  The regular thunder of enemy munitions detonating grew fractionally louder.

  “Skipper,” Kettle said, a warning tone in his voice, “if Itasca gets any closer, there won’t be time to evade. I’ll have to start weaving. We might not make it to Glorious.”

  Grimm turned to the speaking tube. “Engineering, bridge.”

  Journeyman’s voice clattered out of the speaking tube. “Aye, Skipper?”

  “If there’s anything else left in her, Mister Journeyman, we need it right now.”

  “I’m stunned she hasn’t buckled on us already, Skip,” the engineer called back. “Some of these runs are being held together with bloody twine. But I’ll see what can be done. Engine room out.”

  The next few moments were, Gwen thought, uniquely terrifying. There was no kind of violent action happening near her, not an enemy to be seen as anything more than a boy’s model airship, soaring in the distance behind them. There was nothing she could prepare herself to fight. Instead there was simply regular, roaring thunder and boiling fire rending the air nearby, sending gusts of hot, ozone-scented air across the deck of Predator, promising a sudden and violent death. The ship rocked in increasingly severe evasive maneuvers, each necessary to preserve her life, yet each also allowing the enemy to inch nearer.