Back | Next
Cred Cies fingered his sword as five of the six ships changed course to windward. The biggest of the strangers held its initial course, heading to interceptor protectthe fat merchantship Rage of Lemmar had pursued so long.
"They're going to engage us," Cra Vunet said. The mate spat over the side. "Six to five. The odds favor us."
Cies looked at the skies and frowned.
"Yes, they do. But no doubt they can count as well as we can, and they've obviously chosen to leave their biggest ship behind. I'm not sure I like the looks of that. Besides, it will be pouring by the time they get here. Only the bombard is sure to fire under those circumstances, and they seem to have nearly as many men aboard as we do. It will be a tough fight."
"And after it, we'll sail back to Lomsvupe with five ships of a new and superior designsix, after we scoop up the one that's hanging back!" the mate said with a true-hand flick of humor. "That will pay for a thousand nights of pleasure! Better than a single stinking landsman tub."
"On the other hand, they clearly think they can take us," Cies pointed out, still the pessimist. "And we'll have to wear around to engage, while they'll have the favor of the wind. If I'd been sure they were going to attack before, I would have changed course to attack them from upwind, and with our bombard bearing. But I didn't. So, like I say, the fight will be a tough one. Tough."
"We're the Lemmar," Vunet said with another gesture of humor. "A fight is only worth bragging about if it's a tough one!"
"We'll see," Cies replied. "Wear ship to port; let's see if we can't get to windward of them after all before we engage."
"There they go," Roger said, leaning on the anti-coll bead cannon mounted on Ima Hooker's afterdeck. "Wearing to port, just like I predicted."
"I don't get it," Pahner admitted. "Even if they manage to get to windward of us, it still leaves them in a position where we can rake their sterns."
"They don't think that way, Captain," Roger said. "They fight with fixed frontal guns, which means they don't have a concept of a broadside. They're expecting us to do what they'd do: turn to starboard just before we come opposite them, and try to sail straight into their sides. By that time, if they have the respective speeds figured right, they'll be slightly upwind and in a position to swing down on our flank. The worst that could happen is that we end up with both of us going at each other front-to-front and both broad-on to the wind, which isn't a bad point of sailing for one of those tubs.
"Now, the question is whether or not there's some way we can tap dance around out of range of those bombards while we get into a position to hammer them broadside-to-broadside."
"I thought the idea was to cross the enemy's 'T,' " Julian interjected as he watched the "tubs" wearing around. It was evident that the pirate vessels had extremely large crews for two reasonsboth as fighters and because the squaresail ships just plain required more live bodies on the sheets and braces. "That's what they're always talking about in historical romances."
Roger turned towards him and lifted first his helmet visor and then an eyebrow.
"Historical romances?" he repeated, and Julian shrugged with a slightly sheepish expression.
"What can I say? I'm a man of many parts."
"I wouldn't have expected romance novels to be one of them," Roger commented, dropping the visor back as he returned his attention to observing the enemy. "But to answer your question, crossing the 'T' is an ideal tactic against an enemy who uses broadsides. But except for some swivel guns to discourage boarders, these guys don't have any broadside fire at all to speak of. Which isn't quite the case where those big, pocking bombards in the bows are concerned. So we're going to try very, very hard not to cross their 'T.' "
Pahner was uncomfortable. For the first time since hitting Marduk, it was clear that Roger's expertise, his knowledge, far exceeded the captain's own. On one level, Pahner was delighted that someone knew his ass from his elbow where the theory of combat under sail was involved. But "Colonel MacClintock" was still, for all practical purposes, a very junior officer. A surprisingly competent one, since he'd gotten over the normal "lieutenant" idiocy, but still very junior. And junior officers tended to overlook important details in combat operations. Often with disastrous consequences.
"So what plan do you recommend, Your Highness?" the captain asked after a moment.
Roger turned to look at him. The mottled plastic turned the prince's face into an unreadable set of shadows, but it was clear that his mind was running hard.
"I guess you're serious," Roger said quietly. He turned back to gaze at the distant ships and thought about it for perhaps thirty seconds. "Are you saying I should take command?" he asked finally, his voice even quieter than before.
"You're already in command," Pahner pointed out. "I'll be frank, Your Highness. I don't have a clue about how to fight a sea battle. Since you obviously do, you should run this one. If I see anything I think you've overlooked, I'll point it out. But I think this one is . . . up to you."
"Captain," Kosutic asked over the dedicated private command circuit, "are you sure about this?"
"Hold on a moment, Your Highness," Pahner said, turning slightly away from the prince. "Gotta let 'em out of the nest eventually, Sergeant Major," he replied over the same channel.
"Okay. If you're sure," the noncom said dubiously. "But remember Ran Tai."
"I will," Pahner assured her. "I do."
He turned back to the prince, who was pacing back and forth with his hands clasped behind him, looking at the sky.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness. You were saying?"
"Actually, I wasn't." Roger stopped pacing, pulled out a strand of hair, and played with it as he continued to look at the sky. "I was thinking. And I'm about done."
"Are you going to take full command, Colonel?" the captain asked formally.
"Yes, I am," Roger replied with matching formality, his expression settling into lines of unwonted seriousness as the weight of responsibility settled on his shoulders. "The first thing we have to do is reef the sails before the squall sinks us more surely than the Lemmar."
"They're reducing sail," Cra Vunet said. The five other raider ships had completed their own turns before the wind from the storm hit and were following the Rage in line ahead.
"Yes," Cies said thoughtfully. "Those edge-on sails probably tend to push them over in a high wind. I imagine we'll be able to sail with it quite handily, compared to them."
"We'll lose sight of them soon!" Vunet yelled through the sudden tumult as the leading edge of the squall raced across the last few hundred meters of sea towards the Rage. "Here it comes!"
The squall was of the sort common to any tropical zonea brief, murderous "gullywasher" that would drop multiple centimeters of rain in less than an hour. The blast of wind in front of the rainthe "gust front"was usually the strongest of the entire storm, and as it swept down upon them, the placid waves to windward started to tighten up into an angry "chop" crested with white curls of foam.
The wind hit like a hurricane, and the ships heeled over sharply, even with their square sails taken up to the second reef. But the Lemmar sailors took it with aplomb; such storms hit at least once per day.
"Well, they're gone!" Cies shouted back as the strange ships disappeared into a wall of wind, rain, and spray. "We'll stay on this course. Whether they fall off to windward or hold their own course, we'll be able to take them from the front. One shot from each ship, then we go alongside."
"What if they alter course?" Vunet shouted back.
"They're going to find it hard to wear around in this," Cies replied. "And if they try it, they'll still be settling onto course when we come on them. And the storm will probably be gone by then!"
"Come to course three-zero-five!" Roger shouted.
"I'm having a hard time punching a laser through to Sea Foam!" Julian yelled back over the roaring fury of the sea. "The signal's getting real attenuated by all this damned water!"
"Well, make sure you get a confirmation!" Pahner shouted, almost in the NCO's ear. "And we need a string confirmation on it!"
Roger looked around the heeling ship and nodded his head. The Mardukan seamen were handling the lines well, and the situation, so far, was well in hand. The human-designed schooners had come well up into the wind, steering west-by-northwest, close-hauled on the starboard tack, in a course change which would have been literally impossible for the clumsy Mardukan pirates' rigs to duplicate. In many ways, the current conditions weren't that different from other storms they'd sailed through along the way, but they hadn't tried to maneuver in those. They'd simply held their course and hoped for the best. In this case, however, his entire plan depended upon their ability to maneuver in the storm.
It wouldn't be disastrous if they were unable to effect the maneuver he had in mind. It wouldn't be pleasant, but he was fairly certain that the schooners could take at least one or two shots from the pirates' bombards, assuming the simplistic weapons could even be fired under these conditions. But if they managed to pull off what he had in mind, they should suffer virtually no casualties. If he had to take losses, he would, but he'd become more and more determined to hold them to the absolute minimum as the trek went on.
The rain seemed to last forever, but finally he sensed the first signs of slackening in its pounding fury. That usually meant one more hard deluge, then the storm would clear with remarkable speed. Which meant it was almost time to start the next maneuver.
"Julian! Do you have commo?"
"Yes, Sir!" the sergeant responded instantly. "I got confirmations of course change from all ships."
"Then tell them to prepare to come to course two-seven-zero or thereabouts. And warn the gun crews to prepare for action to port, with a small possibility that it could be to starboard, instead. Tell the captains I want them to close up in line, one hundred meters of separation, as soon as the rain clears. I want them to follow us like beads on a string. Clear?"
"Clear and sent, Your Highness. And confirmed by all ships."
"Do you really have any idea where they are?" Pahner asked Roger over the helmet commo systems.
"Unless I'm much mistaken, they're over there," Roger said, gesturing off the port bow and into the blinding deluge.
"And what do we do when the other ships follow us 'like beads on a string'?" the captain asked curiously.
"Ah," Roger said, then glanced back at the commo sergeant. "To all ships, Julian. As soon as we clear the rain, send the sharpshooters to the tops."
The ship heeled hard to port as a fresh blast of wind from the north caught it, and Roger casually grabbed a stay.
"It's clearing," he observed. "Now to see where our other ships are."
"The Foam is right behind us," Julian said. "But they say some of the others are scattered."
The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun, without even the slightest tapering off, and the rest of the K'Vaernian "fleet" was suddenly visible. The Sea Foam was some two hundred meters behind the Hooker, but the rest were scattered to the north and southmostly southof the primary course.
Roger looked the formation over and shrugged.
"Not bad. Not good, but not bad."
Pahner had to turn away to hide his smile. That simple "not bad" was a miracle. It was clear that getting the flotilla back together would take quite a few minutes, and any hope of simply turning and engaging the enemy whenever they appeared, was out of the airlock as a result. But the prince had simply shrugged and accepted that the plan would need revising. That was what a half a year of almost constant battle on Marduk had taught the hopeless young fop who'd first arrived here . . . and that, by itself, was almost worth the bodies scattered along the trail.
"Captain T'Sool," Roger said, "come to course two-seven-zero and take in the mainsail. We need to reduce speed until the rest of the fleet can catch up."
"Yes, Sir," the Mardukan acknowledged, and began shouting orders of his own.
"Julian," Roger turned back to the sergeant while T'Sool carried out his instructions. "To all ships: make all sail conformable with weather and close up in order. Get back in line; we have pirates to kill."
"Kral shit," Vunet said. Then, "Unbelievable!"
The rain had finally cleared, and the enemy fleet was once more visible . . . well upwind of their position, jockeying itself back into line. Neither he nor anyone else aboard the raiders' ships had ever heard of vessels that could do that. They must have tacked almost directly into the wind instead of wearing around before it! But it was clear that however well the individual ships might sail, they weren't well-trained as a group, and they'd gotten badly scattered by the storm.
The Lemmar ships, by contrast, were still in a nearly perfect line, and Cred Cies wasn't about to let the enemy have all day to get his formation back into order.
"Make a signal for all ships to turn towards the enemy and engage!"
"We'll be sailing almost into the teeth of the wind," Vunet pointed out.
"I understand that, Cra," Cies said with rather more patience than he actually felt. They wouldn't really be sailing into the "teeth of the wind," of courseit wasn't as if they were galleys, after all! And it was painfully evident that the strangers could sail far closer to the wind than any of his ships could hope to come. But if he edged as close to it as he could without getting himself taken all aback . . .
"We can still catch them before they reassemble," he told his mate. "Maybe."
Pahner tried not to laugh again as Roger folded his hands behind his back and assumed a mien of calculated indifference. The expression and posture of composed sang-froid was obviously a close copy of Pahner's own, and he'd seen more than one junior officer try it on for size. Roger was wearing it better than most, but then the prince smiled suddenly and swung his hands to the front, slamming a closed fist into the palm of his other hand.
"Yes," he hissed. "You're mine!"
Pahner watched as the pirate ships swung up into the wind. Or, rather, towards the wind. It was obvious that they could come nowhere near as close to it as the schooners could, and the way their square sails shivered indicated even to his landman's eye that they were very close to losing way. But for all that, it also brought those big, bow-mounted bombards around to line up on the Ima Hooker.
"Doesn't look so good to me," he opined.
"Oh, they're going to get some shots off at us," Roger admitted. "We may even take a few hits, although I doubt that their gunnery is going to be anything to write home about. But as soon as everyone is back in line, we're going to turn onto a reciprocal heading to put the wind behind us. We can put on more sail and really race down on them. They're going to get off oneat the most twoshots at us, and most of those are going to miss. If we lose a ship, I'll be astonished, and I don't even anticipate very many casualties. Then we'll be in among them, and we'll rip them up with both broadsides. They're about to get corncobbed."
"So this is a particularly good situation?" Pahner asked, looking back at the ships assembling behind the Hooker. The flagship was close-reaching on the starboard tack now, sailing about forty-five degrees off the wind. That was nowhere near as high as she had been pointing, but apparently it was still high enough for Roger's purposes, and Pahner could see that it gave the rest of the flotilla additional time to catch up. Sea Foam had reduced sail dramatically to conform to the flagship's speed, whereas Prince John had crammed on extra canvas now that the squall had passed and was driving hard to get into position. Pentzikis and Tor Coll were coming up astern of Prince John, and it looked like everyone would be back into formation within perhaps another fifteen minutes.
"Well, if they'd held to their original course and tried to continue past us, then work their way back up to windward behind us, it would have been a pain," Roger told the Marine. "They'd have played hell trying to pull it off, but to get this over within any short time frame, we have to sail in between them, where our artillery can hammer them without their bombards being able to shoot back, and their line was spaced a lot more tightly together than I liked. If they'd continued on their easterly heading, we'd have run the risk of getting someone rammed when we went through their line. By turning up towards us, they've effectively opened the intervals, because those ships are a lot longer than they are wide, and we're looking at them end-on now. In addition, at the moment we actually pass them, we'll be broadside-to-broadside. That means our guns will be able to pound them at minimum range, but that those big-assed bombards are going to be pointing at nothing but empty sea.
"The other choice would have been to sail around behind them, come up from astern, and pick them off one by one. That would keep us out of the play of their guns, too, but I don't want to still be fighting this thing come morning. Among other things, there're those other prize ships to chase down."
"We'll see," Pahner commented. "After this fight, and if Kerr's response is good. I don't want to do this sort of thing for nothing."
"What are they thinking?" Cies asked himself.
The lead enemy ship had waited patiently as the Lemmar ships put their helms down and headed up as close into the wind as they could. In fact, the entire enemy formation seemed to have deliberately slowed down, which didn't make any kind of sense Cies could see. It was painfully obvious to him that those sleek, low-slung vessels were far more weatherly than his own. He was edging as close into the wind as he could come, and by slowing down, the enemy was actually going to allow him to bring his artillery to bear on the last three or four ships in his line. He hadn't had to let Cies do that, and the raider captain was suspicious whenever an opponent provided opportunities so generously. His own ships would miss the lead enemy vessel by at least two hundred meters, but after they'd hammered the other ships and then boarded them, there would be plenty of time to deal with the leader. If it decided to run away, there wasn't much the Lemmar could do about it, given its obvious advantages in both speed and maneuverability. But if it tried to come back and do anything to succor its less fortunate consorts, it would have to reenter Cies' reach.
In which case there definitely was something he could do about it.
"Perhaps they're like the damned priests," Vunet said. Cies glanced across at him. He hadn't realized that he'd asked his rhetorical question aloud, but now his mate clapped his hands in a "who knows?" gesture. "Maybe they plan on sailing into our midst and trying to grapple us all together so they can board, like the priests would."
"If that's what they're thinking, they'll take a pounding," the captain replied. "We'll get off several shots as they close, then sweep their decks with the swivel guns as they come alongside."
"Julian, do we have hard communications in place?" Roger asked.
"Yes, Sir," the intel NCO answered. "Good fix on the Foam and the Prince John. We're all linked, and we're not emitting worth a damn."
"Okay, put me on."
Roger waited a moment, until each of the ship icons on his helmet's HUD flashed green, then spoke across the tight web of communications lasers to the senior Marine aboard each schooner.
"This needs to be relayed to all the ships' captains. On my mark, I want them to put their helms up, and we'll bear away ninety degrees to port. That will let us run directly downwind. Once we're on course, put on all sail conformable with the weather. I'm designating the enemy vessels one through six, starting from the most westerly. Hooker will pass between one and two; Pentzikis will pass between two and three; Sea Foam will pass between three and four; the Johnny will pass between four and five; and Tor Coll will pass down the starboard side of number six. If the enemy holds his course, we'll wear to port after we pass, and rake them from astern. Prepare to bear away on my mark. Flash when ready to execute."
He raised one arm as he stood beside Captain T'Sool and waited until all the HUD icons flashed green. It only took a moment, and then his arm came slashing down.
"All ships: execute!"
"They're actually doing it," Cies said in disbelief.
"I don't even see a forecastle," Vunet said in puzzlement. "Where the hell are their bombards?"
"How the hell do I know?" Cies growled back. "Maybe all they've got are those overgrown swivels on the sides!" He rubbed his horns, pleased that the enemy was being so stupid but anxious that it still might turn out that it wasn't stupidity at all, just something the enemy knew . . . and Cies didn't.
"Get aloft and direct the swivel guns. I don't want anything unexpected to happen."
"Right," Vunet grumped. "Something like losing?"
Roger walked down Hooker's port side, greeting an occasional Mardukan gunner on the way. Most of the flotilla's gunners had been seconded from the K'Vaernian Navy and had served in the artillery at the Battle of Sindi. Roger had been away from the city for much of the battle, having his own set-to with a barbarian force that had refused to be in a logical place. But he'd arrived towards the end, after successfully protecting the main army's flank and annihilating the threat to its line of retreat, and he'd spent quite a bit of time around the artillerymen since. Most of them were native K'Vaernians, like the seamen, and figured that kowtowing to princes was for other people. But, like members of republics and democracies throughout the galaxy, they also had a sneaking affection for nobility, and they'd really taken a shine to Roger.
"Kni Rampol, where did you come from?" the prince asked as he reached up to clap one of the gun captains on his back. "I thought you were on the Prince John?"
"Captain T'Sool asked me to shift places with Blo Fal because he couldn't get along with the mate." The gunner stood up from his piece and caught a backstay to steady himself. The ship was running with the wind coming from astern, and with all sail set, she was swooping up one side of each swell, then charging down the other.
"Well, it's good to see you," Roger said with a modified Mardukan gesture of humor. "No playing poker during the battle, though!"
"I don't think so," the Mardukan agreed with a grunt of humor. "Before you know it, Poertena would find the game, and then I'd be out a month's pay!"
"Probably so, at that," Roger laughed. "In that case, better hang on to your money, keep the muzzle down, and keep firing until you're told to quit. This will be a solid battle to tell the children about."
"Good afternoon, Your Highness," Lieutenant Lod Tak said. The port battery commander was doing the same thing as Rogerwalking the gun line, checking and encouraging his gun crews.
"Afternoon, Lod," Roger acknowledged. "You know the fire plan?"
"Load with grape and ball," Tak replied promptly. "Hold our fire until we bear, then a coordinated broadside at point blank, and go to individual fire. Grape if we're close enough; ball, if we're not. Sound good?"
"Sounds fine," Roger answered. "I don't think they'll know what hit them. The game plan is for us to wear round to the port tack after we pass side to side. That will bring us across their sterns, and we'll get a chance to give them a good, solid rake at close range that should take most of the fight out of them before we board. Grape shot should do the job just fine . . . and leave the damned ships in one piece as prizes, too!"
"That sounds good to me, Your Highness," the Mardukan agreed with cheerful bloodthirstiness. K'Vaern's Cove had always paid excellent prize money for enemy ships captured intact, and every member of Hooker's crew knew exactly how this game was played.
Roger nodded to the lieutenant and continued forward, to where Despreaux stood beside the pivot gun. The bronze carronades along Hooker's side threw eight-kilo shot, and their stubby tubes looked almost ridiculously small beside the towering Mardukans. But the pivot gun was a long gunwith a barrel as long as one of the three-meter natives was talland it threw a fifteen-kilo solid shot. Or a fifteen-centimeter explosive shell.
Despreaux and Gol Shara, Hooker's chief gunner, had just finished fussing over loading the gun, and Shara's body language expressed an unmistakable aura of frustration.
"What's his problem?" Roger asked Despreaux, jabbing his chin at the gunner.
"He wanted to try the shells," she replied, never taking her eyes from the approaching enemy vessels.
"He did, did he?" Roger gave Shara a quick grin, which the Mardukan returned with complete impassivity, then turned back to admire Despreaux's aquiline profile. He decided that she would definitely not like to be told that she looked like a ship's warrior maiden figurehead. "The object is to take them as close to intact as we can get them," he pointed out mildly, instead.
"Oh, he understands; he just doesn't like it," Despreaux said, but still she never looked away from the Lemmar, and Roger frowned.
"You don't look happy," he said more quietly. He also thought that he would like to wrap her in foam and put her in the hold, where she wouldn't be exposed to enemy fire. But she was his guard, not the other way around, and any suggestion of coddling on his part would undoubtedly meet with a violent response.
"Do you ever wish it could just end, Roger?" she asked quietly. "That we could call over to them and say, 'Let's not fight today.' "
It took the prince a moment to think about that. It was a feeling that he'd had before his first major battle, at Voitan, where better than half the company had been lost, but he'd rarely experienced it since then. Rage, yes. Professional fear of failure, yes. But as he considered her question, he realized that the normal and ordinary fear of dying had somehow fallen behind. Even worse, in some ways, the fear of having to kill was doing the same thing.
"No," he said after the better part of a minute. "Not really. Not since Voitan."
"I do," she said still very quietly. "I do every single time." She turned to look at him at last. "I love you, and I knew even when I was falling in love with you, that you don't feel that way. But sometimes it worries me that you don't."
She looked deep into his eyes for moment, then touched him on the arm, and started back towards the stern.
Roger watched her go, then turned back to watch the oncoming enemy. She had a point, he thought. On Marduk, the only way to survive had been to attack and keep on attacking, but sooner or later, they would make it back to Earth. When they did, he would once again become good old Prince Roger, Number Three Child, and in those conditions, jumping down the throat of the flar-ke to kick your way out its ass was not an effective tactic. Nor would Mother appreciate it if he blew some idiotic noble's brains all over the throne room's walls, he supposed. Sooner or later, he'd have to learn subtlety.
At that moment, the lead Lemmar ship opened up with its bombard, followed rapidly by all five of its consorts.
Yes, she had a point. He had to admit it. One that bore thinking about. But for now, it was time to kick some ass.
Back | Next