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The Aeronaut's Windlass, Page 56

Jim Butcher

  She thought she might go mad with the unnerving contrasts of the brilliant sunlight, the crisp, chill breeze in the air, and the thundering violence of aerial battle. It made her feel utterly helpless.

  Because, she realized, she was. There was absolutely nothing she could do to save herself from sharing whatever fate Predator met, apart from throwing herself over the rail at once. She had no training, no instinct, no knowledge that would help her survive in this circumstance. Her fate was, she realized, entirely in the hands of another person.

  Captain Grimm stood steady in his place on the bridge, hands folded behind his back, his safety lines tight and neat, the very image of what an airship captain was supposed to be, holding all their lives in his hands, and doing it without bowing beneath the burden or complaining of the weight.

  It was a form of courage that Gwen had never considered before.

  There was no way in Heaven or on Earth that this man was a coward who deserved to be cast from the Fleet, whatever the records may have said.

  Gwen’s breath suddenly caught in her throat. In the past several moments, Predator had sailed down near to the misty mezzosphere, with Itasca gaining on her the entire while. There, ahead of them in the mist, she had spotted the shadowy form of Glorious, ready to burst forth into the teeth of the enemy.

  “Let’s not stand in Commodore Rook’s way. Prepare for evasive ascension, Mister Kettle,” Grimm noted, his voice entirely calm. “Steady. Steady . . .”

  An endless second passed.

  And Predator’s luck ran out.

  A burning sphere from Itasca’s bow gun exploded exactly amidst her port-side web, sending the entire thing up in flames in a single, violently blazing sheet of burning ethersilk.

  The reaction of the ship was immediate. She slowed, throwing Gwen forward against the pull of the safety lines that strained to hold her in place, the heavy leather belt around her midsection pinching hard against her flesh, cutting into her. The ship slewed heavily to starboard, pulled off balance by the preponderance of functioning web on that side, her timbers groaning and creaking at the sudden shift of forces.

  Gwen actually saw one of the runs to one of the port-side trim crystals fail in a shower of sparks, finally collapsing under the strain of hard use without the stabilization of solidly established systems to support it. The port side of the ship abruptly dropped a good two feet, bang, jarring Gwen and driving her brutally to one knee on the deck. Pain flared up her leg.

  Grimm was thrown to his knees on the deck as well, but he never lost concentration on the moment, his voice rising to a bellow. “Evasive ascension now, Mister Kettle! Reef the starboard web! Kettle, wheel her around to bring our starboard array into position to support Glorious!”

  Kettle, held steady by the braces of the pilot’s position, clenched his teeth and wrenched Predator into a sudden, lopsided climb, even as the ship lost more velocity, allowing for Itasca to rush in for a killing stroke— —just as Glorious came surging up from the mezzosphere, her broadside to Itasca, firing her thirty cannon in rapid, successive, howling salvos of ten guns each.

  The noise was too loud, the light simply too bright to be believed. Gwen found herself lifting her hands to ward her eyes and ears and face as thunder and lightning pounded against them. Predator whirled with drunken grace around her vertical axis, until her own more slender but still deadly broadside came to bear on the enemy ship, and opened up in howling thunder.

  Itasca vanished behind a wall of flame and deafening sound and roiling smoke. It seemed incredible to Gwen that any ship could do anything but be obliterated by such an outpouring of power.

  But Itasca did.

  The ship came sailing gracefully through the thunder and fire, her web blazing like an enormous halo all around her, her energy shroud glowing more brightly than a thousand lumin crystals. Some of the blasts had gotten through, and her prow had been smashed and warped out of shape as if some titan had taken an enormous sledgehammer to her, and two of the three cannon in her bow gunnery deck had been reduced to smoldering ruin, but the vessel was in one piece, and already slewing her stern around with more grace than any ship so large should possess, even as she ascended.

  Glorious’s salvo fire smashed against Itasca’s shroud, but as the ship rotated she brought fresh, undamaged portions of her protective sphere to bear against the fire, shrugging off the blows like a veteran brawler. Within a few breaths she had brought her own port broadside to bear, and it fired in a single titanic salvo amidships on Glorious.

  Glorious’s shroud, overloaded at the relatively smaller point of impact, gave her less protection than Itasca’s had. Armor rang and rent and screamed as cannon tore Glorious’s flank, wiping away half a dozen of her guns and smashing one of her three port-side mastworks. Secondary explosions, probably from one of the cannon, blew a hole in her guts from inside the armor, sending splinters of shattered deck and planking spinning and howling throughout the nearby compartments.

  But Itasca wasn’t finished. Rather than slowing, she kept rushing ahead, and her sharp angle of ascension carried her just over the top of Glorious’s glowing shroud. Itasca managed the roll of a much lighter ship as she went, and brought her starboard broadside to bear, aiming down at Glorious’s deck from point-blank range. She fired in titanic fury, and there was only so much that shroud and armor alike could do at such a range, from that relatively vulnerable angle.

  Sections of Glorious fully thirty feet across simply vanished, charred to clouds of soot. Her main dorsal mast was cut in half and plummeted toward the deck. Human screams could not be heard amidst that destruction, but Gwen’s imagination placed them for her near the small figures she could see consumed in violence that rendered even the doughtiest mortal form into a glass figurine.

  Glorious listed to one side, groaning and shrieking in her pain—but even so, incredibly, the ship withstood the horrible destruction visited upon her by the enemy, wounded but not destroyed, her heavy armor enabling her to survive the punishment laid out upon her.

  Itasca, meanwhile, rocked back to level, her steam turbines chugging and roaring, giving her some maneuverability even as her aeronauts labored to deploy more lengths of her ethersilk web from her masts, to harness the greater power and grace they offered. If she was not untouched, she had been marked only lightly in comparison to the ship that had appeared to have every advantage on her in the outset of the engagement, and she was ready to fight on.

  “God in Heaven,” Kettle swore, without a trace of mockery in his tone. “Now, that is how you handle a ship.”

  “Keep us moving, Mister Kettle,” Captain Grimm snapped. “Circle us toward Glorious and stay in her shadow.” He raised his voice to bellow, “Guns! Keep raking Itasca’s web! We’ve got to keep her lamed so that she can’t get more fire into the holes she’s put in Glorious’s armor!”

  “Rake her web, aye!” Commander Creedy’s voice echoed. Predator’s cannon shrieked, and sections of Itasca’s web went up in flames even as the large ship’s reels spooled more out. Itasca’s momentum slowed, the ship hovering sluggishly for a moment—a moment in which Glorious’s massive firepower could make a proper reply to Itasca’s greeting of a moment before.

  “Hah!” Grimm said, clenching his fist. “We can have her yet.”

  “Guts and rot!” snarled Kettle, sudden and furious. “Captain, look at Glorious!”

  Grimm’s head whipped around to stare at the Fleet battlecruiser. Over the distance, Gwen’s stunned hearing could just barely make out a loud, frantic ringing sound. It took her only a second or two to recognize it as the same bell cadence Predator herself had used to signal emergency maneuvers.

  And seconds later she watched as Glorious plunged back down into the mists, moving in a rapid, panicked-looking descent.

  Gwen stared after the wounded leviathan, stunned. Only the swirling mists remained, spinning in a slow, circular vortex where Glorious had vanished.

  “The coward!” Kettle howled. “Damn you
, Rook, you rottencrotched coward! Did you think you could take a fighter like Itasca without getting a few lumps along the way?”

  Gwen shook her head dazedly, her eyes moving to Captain Grimm.

  The man was staring after the vanished Glorious, just as she had been, and she could see the truth in the sickened horror in his eyes.

  Glorious had left Predator behind to die.

  Dimly Gwen could hear Itasca’s aeronauts howling in wild defiance and exultation—as well they might, having just turned an ambush back upon their attackers to send them diving out of the blue sky for the cover of the mists.

  And then Itasca began turning, to bring her broadside to bear on lamed, fragile Predator.

  Chapter Sixty-eight

  AMS Predator

  Grimm watched as Itasca banked toward them, steam engines chugging, turbines roaring, and lined up the shot that would scatter Predator and her crew to the winds.

  Like everything else Itasca had done, the maneuver was performed flawlessly. Grimm could just see, at this distance, the outlines of the officers standing on Itasca’s bridge, including the high-crowned hat of her captain. The man’s dark red uniform was marred by a blob of white—a sling for his arm, perhaps? Some of the blast from Glorious’s opening salvo must have gotten through Itasca’s shroud, and heat or shrapnel from the impact upon the ship’s armor must have wounded the man. Yet he stood where a captain ought, doing what a captain should. Grimm could respect that.

  At least if he was to be gunned down, it would not be by some simpering, cowardly nepotist like Rook, or by the guns of some ragged, sloppy, desperately violent pirate. There was some comfort in the thought.

  Though it was a given, of course, that he and Predator would not simply lie down and die, either.

  He could not outrun Itasca, not now. Half of Predator’s web had been shot away, severely limiting her speed, whereas the larger ship could simply deploy more ethersilk from her expansive reels. Grimm could order the men to raise sail, but the winds were not favorable in their current position, and turbine-driven Itasca would end the matter before the canvas sails could be deployed.

  He could not escape in the traditional fashion—they were too far from the mist to try anything but an almost certainly suicidal dive, given that one trim crystal had already folded on them. For that matter, even a sharp ascent could be equally dangerous.

  To stand and shoot it out with Itasca would be an utterly futile gesture. Oh, a lucky shot might strike a weakened point in Itasca’s shroud— she had been in a heavy exchange and close quarters with Glorious, after all—but a single fortunate shot from Predator’s guns would be unlikely to inflict heavy damage against the battlecruiser’s armor with anything but luck guided by the hands of the Merciful Builders, the Archangels, and God in Heaven Himself. In contrast, it would take a similar stroke of fortune for Predator to survive obliteration from Itasca’s broadside.

  Grimm turned his head to regard the flag of Albion, snapping out straight in the cold wind from the main dorsal mast. He could strike his colors. The universal sign of surrender in aerial battle would almost certainly be honored by a professional of the caliber of Itasca’s captain. Of course, doing so would mean the loss of Predator, either taken as prize or destroyed and sent to the surface as an act of war, and Grimm’s soul screamed out against that course of action.

  But what other option did he have?

  “Captain Grimm?” Miss Lancaster asked. “What is that sound?”

  Grimm frowned at her for a second and then tilted one ear to the air, listening. His hearing still rang with the fury of recent battle, but . . . yes, there was a sound coming from high above.

  A sound like distant trumpets.

  And it was coming from directly out of the blinding midmorning sun.

  Grimm whirled to stare at Itasca, thundering along under the rattle of her steam engines, the roar of her turbines, and realized that the enemy ship was effectively deafened by her own propulsion. Was there time?

  Yes. Yes, there might be.

  Grimm felt a smile stretch his lips from his teeth and bellowed, “Hard to port at flank speed, Mister Kettle! Stay ahead of her turn! Guns! Ripple fire on Itasca’s bridge!”

  “Sir?” Creedy called back. Grim could hear the incredulity in the young officer’s voice. Not only was deliberately aiming for an enemy’s bridge an unworthy and generally unrewarding tactic, but ripple fire— loosing blasts from one cannon after another—would accomplish nothing against Itasca’s heavy shroud at this distance. It would, in fact, do little more than provide a fireworks display.

  “That is an order, Mister Creedy!” Grimm thundered. “Fire!”

  Creedy’s voice bawled out the order, and within seconds Predator’s cannon began hurling defiance into Itasca’s teeth. Blasts of fire exploded against the shroud near Itasca’s bow, blotting her bridge from view in intermittent washes of flame.

  “Captain!” came Journeyman’s near-furious scream from the speaking tube. “Port-side trim crystal array is about to fold on us! We’ve got to get somewhere quiet and stable and cut power!”

  “Understood!” Grimm called back. “Prepare to cut power to the port trim array!”

  “What?” Journeyman blurted.

  Grimm turned to Miss Lancaster and began tightening her safety straps, checking each carefully. “Excuse me, miss.”

  The young woman stared at him, her eyes widening. “Captain?”

  “Hold on to your straps tight with both hands, and do not adjust them, if you please,” Grimm said.

  Itasca continued her turn, bringing the annihilation of her broadside to bear, though Kettle kept wounded Predator racing ahead of it, banking into an arc that would circle around the other ship. The gesture was a futile one in the long term. Already Itasca was cutting her forward speed slightly to send more power screaming through the lateral thrusters of her turbines, to spin her faster and catch Predator in the firing arch of her own port-side guns.

  The foremost trio of guns in Itasca’s array managed to traverse enough to catch Predator in their sights and spat angry spheres of flame. Her heavy cannon were considerably larger than those Predator boasted, and the enemy fire leapt across the sky to splash against Predator’s shroud. It illuminated in a brilliant sphere of green light, and the roar of the cannon charges felt as if they shook Grimm’s very bones. Grimm could all but feel his ship’s determination to persevere, feel her stubborn endurance—but he could also feel some of the heat from the enemy rounds leak through the shroud, sending the heavy scent of ozone washing over the deck.

  Predator kept up her steady pounding of the area around Itasca’s bridge, and Grimm knew that it would look like the tactic of a truly desperate man, hoping to end the threat to his ship by effectively cutting off the head of his foe. Stories and dramas often relied upon such a tactic—but in the messy practice of actual battle, targeting so precise was problematic, shrouds not so easily penetrated, and a determined enemy could usually batter through a foe’s shroud amidships more accurately and rapidly than an enemy attempting to directly strike the enemy’s bridge.

  But, Grimm thought, it was not his goal to wreak havoc on Itasca with his cannon. He had something far more dangerous in mind. After all, she was already deaf.

  Grimm wanted her blind, too.

  Itasca dropped even more of her speed to sharpen her turn, her armored flanks gleaming in the sun as she struggled to catch the smaller, nimbler ship in her guns’ firing arcs, like a cat whirling on a darting mouse. Grimm could feel his heart beating in pure, frantic terror as he felt the angles of the ships changing, felt more of the enemy’s guns beginning to catch up to Predator, and knew he and his ship had only seconds to live. Itasca was determined to finish what she had begun those weeks ago, and was focused wholly upon Predator’s destruction.

  And because she was, she never knew a thing until the sound of strident trumpets suddenly rose over even the thunder of her own engines and Predator’s cannon fire.

bsp; Commodore Alexander Bayard’s AFS Valiant came crashing down from the sun, the heavy cruiser dropping in a descent that was very nearly as sharp as the combat dive of a far lighter vessel, her war cry a clarion call. On her flanks were her division mates, AFS Thunderous, roaring like a storm, and AFS Victorious, her spars shaking with the steady rumble of a vast war drum.

  A roar of unadulterated ferocity went up from the crew of Predator as the three Albion heavy cruisers pivoted with the coordination of a troupe of dancers, bringing their broadsides to bear on Itasca, and unleashed the fury of forty-five cannon in a nearly simultaneous flash of light and sound.

  The range was brutally close: Bayard had brought his ships down between Grimm’s ship and Itasca.

  Albion cannon blasts smashed into Itasca’s already tested shroud, hammered through it, and gouged into her hull itself. Itasca’s heavy armor plating had been designed to withstand guns exactly like those now being used against her, in odds exactly like those she now faced— but even Itasca could not ignore Bayard’s opening remarks. His ships’ cannon tore into Itasca’s armor, tearing gaping holes in her outer hull and setting everything in the compartments behind them on fire. In an instant, nearly half of Itasca’s port-side hull simply vanished, blown into clouds of ash and flame and cinder and shattered, glowing-hot armor.

  And yet Itasca’s crew was too disciplined to be rendered impotent, despite the speed of Bayard’s nearly perfect execution of a classic attack. Even as the cruiser division opened fire, Itasca howled her defiance back at her foes, her cannon screaming—and the weight of her entire broadside came crashing down upon Thunderous.

  The battlecruiser’s heavy cannon made light work of Thunderous’s shroud, and the greater density of Itasca’s fire meant that Thunderous never had a chance. Though her outer hull was armored with copperclad steel, at that range, and against those guns, she might as well have been protected by so much glass. Cannon charges erupted against the heavy cruiser’s armored exterior, tore a hole in her large enough to sail a through in a yacht, and erupted out the far side of Thunderous’s hull in a spray of shattered armor, fire, and incinerated wood, gutting her in a single salvo.