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"Prepare to run out!" Roger called, gauging the speed of the oncoming ships. The two formations sliced towards one another, the schooners moving much faster through the water than the clumsier raider vessels, and he frowned slightly. They were going to pass one another on opposite tacks, all right, but considerably more quickly than he had anticipated.
"I want to reduce sail as we pass through them, so we can get in more than one broadside."
"Agreed," Captain T'Sool said. Hooker's Mardukan captain stood beside the prince, eyes narrow as he, too, calculated the combined approach speed. "I think taking in the middle and topmast staysails should be enough. If it isn't, we can always drop the mainsail and the inner jib, as well."
Despite the tension, Roger smiled faintly. There'd been no terms for those types of sails in any Mardukan language before Poertena had introduced them, so the diminutive armorer had been forced to use the human ones. It had workedat least it precluded any possibility of confusing Mardukan wordsbut it was more than a bit humorous to hear a Mardukan make a hash of pronouncing "topmast staysail" . . . especially with a Pinopan accent. But T'Sool was almost certainly correct. What he'd suggested would reduce sail area significantly, and with it, Hooker's speed, but the foresail was the real workhorse of the topsail schooner rig. Even if they did have to drop the mainsail, as well, her agility and handling would be unimpaired.
"I think just the staysails should be enough," he responded. "Julian, send that to the other ships along with the word that we'll be engaging shortly."
"Yes, Sir." The NCO grinned. "I think we can all figure out that last part on our own, though!"
Another boom echoed from the oncoming ships, and the ball from the nearest bombard was clearly visible as it flew well above the Hooker. It was audible, as well, even over the sounds of wind and sea. Roger was almost too intent to notice, but several people flinched as the whimpering ball sliced away several lines overhead. The two sides were little more than two hundred meters apart, with Roger's vessels swooping down upon the Lemmar.
"I think we're in range," Roger observed dryly.
"Indeed?" D'Nal Cord's tone was even drier. He stood directly behind Roger, leaning on his huge spear while guarding the prince's back, as any proper asi should when battle loomed. "And as Sergeant Julian is so fond of saying, you think this because . . . ?"
Roger turned to smile fiercely up at his asi, but other people on Hooker's afterdeck had more pressing details to worry about.
"Srem Kol!" T'Sool shouted, and pointed upward when a Mardukan petty officer looked towards him. "Get a work party aloft and get those lines replaced! Tlar Frum! Stand by to reduce sail!"
Even as shouted acknowledgments came back to him, there was more thunder from the Lemmar line, and Roger heard a rending crash.
"Prince John just took a hit," Pahner said, and Roger looked over to see that the captain's gift for understatement hadn't deserted him. The third schooner in his own line had lost her foremast. It had plunged into the water on her starboard side, and the weight of the broken spars and sodden canvas was like an anchor. The ship swung wildly around to the right, exposing her broadside to the oncoming Mardukan raiders.
"Not much we can do about it now," Roger observed with a mildness which fooled neither Pahner nor himself. "Nothing except smash the shit out of the scummies, anyway. And at least anybody who wants her is going to have to come close enough for her carronades to do a little smashing of their own. Still" He looked at the Marine standing beside Cord. "Julian, tell the Johnny to concentrate on Number Four's rigging. Sea Foam and Tor Coll will have to hammer Number Three and Number Five to keep them off her."
"Got it," Julian acknowledged. The NCO had switched to a battle schematic on his pad and sent the updated plan to all five ships. "I've got a response from everyone except Prince John," he reported after a moment.
"I can see some damage aft." Pahner had the zoom dialed up on his helmet visor. "It looks like Number Four and Number Five were concentrating fire on her. She looks pretty beat up."
"I don't doubt it," Roger grunted. "Those are dammed big cannonballs." He shrugged. "But we'll settle their hash in a few minutes now. It's about time to open the ball. All shipsrun out!"
"What do they think they're doing now?" Vunet demanded as Rage of Lemmar's bombard thudded again.
"Just at a guess, I'd say they're finally getting ready to shoot back at us," Cred Cies said bitingly as the smooth sides of the strange, low-slung ships were suddenly barbed with what certainly looked like stubby bombard muzzles.
"With those tiny things?" the mate made a derisive gesture of contempt.
"With those tiny things," Cies confirmed.
"My son could hurt us worse with a toy sword," Vunet scoffed.
Given its angle of approach, the K'Vaernian flotilla could have opened fire with its forward pivot guns even before the Lemmar did. Roger, however, had chosen not to do so. Powerful as the pivot guns were, it was unlikely that they could have incapacitated any of the raider vessels by themselves without using the explosive shells, which would probably have destroyed their targets completely. Wooden ships waterproofed with pitch and covered with tarred rigging were tinderboxes, just waiting for any explosive shell to set them ablaze. And even if that hadn't been the case, Roger had had no interest in alerting the Mardukan pirates to the power of his vessels' weapons. The K'Vaernian Navy had been unimpressed by the carronades when they first saw them . . . and with considerably less excuse, since the K'Vaernians had already seen human-designed artillery in action at Sindi. The longer these scummies remained in ignorance about their capabilities, the better.
But the time for ignorance was about over. Especially for Prince John. Roger could see axes flashing on her forward deck as her crew frantically chopped away at the rigging holding the wreckage of the foremast against her side. If things worked out the way he planned, the raiders would be too busy to bother with the Johnny anytime soon, but if things didn't work out, it was going to be a case of God helping those who helped themselves.
In the meantime . . .
"Fire as you bear!"
Ima Hooker and her consorts each carried a broadside of twelve guns. Once upon a time, on a planet called Earth, those guns would have been described as eighteen-pounder carronadesshort, stubby weapons with a maximum effective range of perhaps three hundred meters. Beside someone the size of a Mardukan, they looked even shorter and stubbier, and perhaps the pirate captains could be excused for failing to grasp the menace they represented. Certainly Roger had done everything he could to keep the Lemmaran crews from doing so . . . until now.
Despite the threat bearing down upon her, the Prince John did not fire first. Her guns, like those of every unit of the flotilla, had been loaded for a basically antipersonnel engagement, with a charge of grapeshot atop a single round shot. That was a marvelous combination for smashing hulls and slaughtering personnel at close range, but it left a bit to be desired in terms of long-range gunnery. The other schooners, continuing their race towards the enemy, were going to reach that sort of range far more quickly than any clumsy Lemmaran tub was going to claw far enough up to windward for her to reach. So the Johnny held her fire, waiting to see whatif anythinggot by her sisters and into her effective range.
Of course, even with their superior weapons, four schooners might find themselves just a bit hard-pressed to stop six raiders from getting past them.
Or perhaps not.
Cred Cies watched in disbelief as the side of the nearest enemy vessel disappeared behind a billowing cloud of dirty-white smoke. Those short, silly-looking bombards obviously threw far heavier shot than he had believed possible. The quantity of smoke alone would have made that obvious, but the hurricane of iron slamming into his vessel made it even more obvious. Painfully obvious, one might almost have said.
Those low-slung, infernally fast ships slashed down into the Lemmaran formation, and as they did, they showed him exactly why they'd adopted the approach they had. The raiders' bombards might have gotten off three or four unanswered shots each as the strangers drove in across their effective range, but the accuracy of those shots had left much to be desired. One of the enemy vessels had been crippled, and had clearly taken casualties, as well, but the others were unscathed.
Now they swept into the intervals in his own formation, and his teeth ground together in frustration as he realized that even as they did, they were actually reducing sail. They were slowing down, sacrificing their impossible speed advantage, and the shriek and crash of shotthe dreadful, splintering smash as round shot slammed into and through his own ship's timberswas like a hammer blow squarely between the horns as he realized why.
"All right!" someone shrieked, and it took Roger a moment to realize that it had been him. Not that he was alone in his jubilation.
The endless hours of drill inflicted upon the K'Vaernian gunners had been worth it. The range to target was little more than fifty meters, and at that range, every shot went home. Jagged holes magically appeared in the stout planking of the raider ships. Grapeshot and splinters of their own hulls went through the massed troops, drawn up on the pirates' decks in obvious anticipation of a boarding action, like scythes. Bodies and pieces of bodies flew in grisly profusion, and the agonized shrieks of the wounded cut through even the thunder of the guns.
Roger wanted to leap to the rail to help serve one of the guns personally. The strength of the fierce, sudden temptation took him by surprise. It was as if the screams of his enemies, the sudden spray pattern of blood splashed across the lower edges of the square sails as wooden "splinters" two meters and more in length went smashing through the raider crews like ungainly buzz saws, closed some circuit deep inside him. It wasn't hunger . . . not precisely. But it was a need. It was something all too much like a compulsion, and deep inside him a silent, observing corner of his brain realized that Nimashet had been right to worry about him.
But there was no time for such thoughts, and it wasn't fear of his own inner demons which kept him standing by Hooker's wheel as the artillery thundered and the enemy shrieked. It was responsibility. The awareness that he had accepted command for the duration of this battle and that he could no more abandon or evade that responsibility than Armand Pahner could have. And so he stayed where he was, with Julian poised at one shoulder and D'Nal Cord at the other, while someone else did the killing.
Hooker's carronades bellowed again and again. Not in the single, senses-shattering blast of the perfectly synchronized opening broadside but in ones and twos as the faster crews got off their follow-up shots. There was more thunder from overhead as sharpshootersMarines with their big bolt-action rifles, and Mardukans, with their even bigger breech-loadersclaimed their own toll from the enemy.
The main "broadside" armament of the Lemmaran ships was composed of "swivel guns," which weren't much more than built-up arquebuses. They were about fifty millimeters in caliber, and they had the range to carry to the K'Vaernian schooners slicing through the Lemmaran formation, but without rifling, they were grossly inaccurate. On the other hand, the already short range was going to fall to zero when the flotilla finally closed to board the raider ships, and the swivels could still wreak havoc among the infantry who would be doing the boarding. So the sharpshooters were tasked with taking out the gun crews, as well as any obvious officers they could spot.
Even with the much more accurate rifles, the shots weren't easy to make. The ships were tossing in the long swells of the Mardukan ocean and simultaneously moving on reciprocal headings, so the targets were moving in three dimensions. Since the sharpshooters were perched on the fighting tops at the topmast crosstrees or lashed into the ratlines with safety harnesses, they were not only moving in three dimensions, they were moving very broadly in three dimensions, swaying back and forth, up and down, in a manner which, had they not become inured to it already, would have guaranteed seasickness. There were enough Mardukans on the raiders' decks to give each rifle shot an excellent chance of hitting someone, but despite all of their endless hours of practice, the odds against that someone being the target they'd aimed at were much higher. The sharpshooters claimed their own share of victims, but their best efforts were only a sideshow compared to the carnage wreaked by the carronades.
Each of the four undamaged schooners was engaged on both sides as they drove down between the Lemmaran vessels. The thundering guns pounded viciously at the stunned and disbelieving raiders, and Roger shook his head grimly as the first Lemmaran foremast went crashing over the side. A moment later, the hapless ship's mainmast followed.
"That's done for that one, Captain," he observed to Pahner, and the Marine nodded.
"What about supporting Prince John?" the captain asked, and Roger glanced at him. The Marine's tone made it clear that his question was just thata question, and not a veiled suggestion. But it was a reasonable one, the prince thought, as he looked astern at the cloud of powder smoke rising above the crippled schooner. From the sound of her guns, though, the Johnny was firing with steady deliberation, not with the sort of desperation which might have indicated a close action.
"We've got time to settle these bastards first," Roger said, nodding at the incipient melee, and Pahner nodded again.
"You're in command," he agreed, and Roger took time to give him a quick, savage smile before he turned his attention back to T'Sool.
"Put your helm alee, Captain!" he ordered, and T'Sool waved two arms at his helmsman.
"Hands to sheets!" the Mardukan captain bellowed through the bedlam. "Off sheets!" Seamen who had learned their duties the hard way during the voyage scampered through the smoke and fury to obey his orders even as the gunners continued to fire, and T'Sool watched as the line-handlers raced to their stations, then waved at the helmsman again.
"Helm alee! Let go the sheetshandsomely there!" he thundered, and the helmsman spun the wheel.
Hooker turned on her heel like the lady she was, coming around to port in a thunder of canvas, with a speed and precision none of the raiders would have believed possible.
"Haul in and make fast!" T'Sool shouted, and the schooner settled onto her new heading, with the wind once more broad on her port beam. The sail-handlers made the sheets fast on the big fore-and-aft foresail, and her broadside spat fresh thunder as she charged back across her enemies' sterns.
There were no gunsbombards or swivelsto protect the raiders' sterns, and the carnage aboard the Lemmaran ships redoubled as the lethal grapeshot went crashing the entire length of the vessels. A single one of the iron spheres might kill or maim as many as a dozenor even two dozenof the raiders, and then the anti-coll bead cannon mounted on Hooker's after rail opened fire, as well.
For the first time since the Marines landed on Marduk, their high-tech weapons were almost superfluous. The ten-millimeter, hypervelocity beads were incredibly lethal, but the storm of grapeshot and the flying splinters of the ships themselves spread a stormfront of destruction broader than anything the bead cannon could have produced. The beads were simply icing on the cake.
"Bring us back up close-hauled on the port tack, Captain T'Sool!" Roger snapped, and Hooker swung even further to port, riding back along a reciprocal of her original course that took her back up between the battered raider ships towards Prince John's position. Both broadsides' carronades continued to belch flame with deadly efficiency, and Roger could clearly see the thick ropes of blood oozing from the Mardukan ships' scuppers.
The flotilla flagship broke back through the enemy's shattered formation with smoke streaming from her gun ports in a thick fog bank shot through with flame and fury. Another raider's masts went crashing over the side, and Roger sucked in a deep, relieved breath of lung-searing smoke, despite his earlier confident words to Pahner, as he saw Prince John.
The broken foremast had been cut entirely away; he could see it bobbing astern of her as she got back underway under her mainsail and gaff main topsail alone. It was scarcely an efficient sail combination, but it was enough under the circumstances. Or it should be, anyway. She wasn't moving very quickly yet, and her rigging damage had cost her her headsails, which meant the best she could do was limp along on the wind. But her speed was increasing, and at least she was under command and moving. Which was a good thing, since raider Number Four had somehow managed to claw her way through the melee.
The Johnny had seen her coming, and her carronades were already pounding at her opponent. The bigger, more heavily built raider vessel's topsides were badly shattered, and her sails seemed to have almost more holes in them than they had intact canvas, but she was still underway, still closing on the damaged schooner, and the big, slow-firing bombard protected by the massive timber "armor" of her forecastle was still in action. Even as Roger watched, it slammed another massive round shot into the much more lightly built schooner, and he swore viciously as splintered planking flew.
"It would be the Johnny," he heard Pahner say almost philosophically. He looked at the Marine, and the captain shrugged. "Never seems to fail, Your Highness. The place you least want to get hit, is the one you can count on the enemy finding." He shook his head. "She's got quite a few of the Carnan aboard, and they already took a hammering when we lost Sea Skimmer."
"Don't count your money when it's still sitting on the table," Roger replied, then turned to Julian. "All ships," he said. "Close with the pirates to leeward and board. We'll go to Johnny's assistance ourselves."
"Your Highness," Pahner began, "considering that our entire mission is to get you home alive, don't you think that perhaps it might be a bit wiser to let someone else go"
Roger had just turned back to the Marine to argue the point when Pahner's helmet visor automatically darkened to protect the captain's vision. Roger didn't know whether or not Prince John's Marine detachment had originally set up a plasma cannon for their anti-coll defense system. If they had, he thought with a strange detachment, they were probably going to hear about itat lengthfrom Pahner and the sergeant major. But it was also possible that they'd switched out the bead cannon at the last minute while the rest of the crew worked on repairs to the schooner's crippled rigging. Not that it mattered. Raider Number Four had managed to get around behind Johnny's stern, where her deadly carronade broadside wouldn't bear. And in achieving that position of advantage, the pirate vessel had put itself exactly where the schooner's crew wanted it.
The Marines' plasma cannons could take out modern main battle tanks, and if Hooker's bead cannon hadn't seemed to add much to her carronades' carnage, no one would ever say that about Prince John's after armament. The round ripped straight down the center of the target ship, just above main deck level. It sliced away masts, rigging, bulwarks, and the majority of the pirates who had assembled on deck in anticipation of boarding. What was worse, in a way, was the thermal bloom that preceded the round. The searing heat touched the entire surface of the ship to flame in a tiny slice of a second, and the roaring furnace became an instant sliver of Hell, an inferno afloat on an endless sea that offered no succor to its victims. Those unfortunate souls below decks, "shielded" from the instant incineration of the boarding party, had a few, eternal minutes longer to shriek before the bombard's powder magazine exploded and sent the shattered, flaming wreck mercifully into the obliterating depths.
"I thought we wanted to capture the ships intact," Roger said almost mildly.
"What would you have done, Your Highness?" Pahner asked. "Yeah, we want to capture the ships, and recapture the convoy, if we can. But Prince John, obviously, would prefer to avoid being boarded herself."
"And apparently the Lemmar agree with that preference," D'Nal Cord observed. "Look at that."
He raised an upper arm and pointed. One of the six raider vessels drifted helplessly, completely dismasted while the blood oozing down her side dyed the water around her. Her deck was piled and heaped with the bodies of her crew, and it was obvious that no more than a handful of them could still be alive. Three more raiders each had one of the flotilla's other schooners alongside, and now that Hooker's carronades were no longer bellowing, Roger could hear the crackle of small arms fire as the K'Vaernian boarders stormed up and over them. Prince John's plasma cannon had accounted for a fifth raider, but the sixth and final pirate vessel had somehow managed to come through the brutal melee with its rigging more or less intact, and it was making off downwind just as fast as its shredded canvas would allow.
"Do we let them go, or close with them?" the prince asked.
"Close," Pahner said. "We want to capture the ships, and I'm not a great believer in giving a fleeing enemy an even break. They either surrender, or they die."
"They're not letting us go," Vunet said.
"Would you?" Cies shot back with a grunt of bitter laughter as he looked around the deck.
The crew was hastily trying to repair some of the damage, but it was a futile task. There was just too much of it. Those damned bombards of theirs were hellishly accurate. Unbelievably accurate. They'd smashed Rage of Lemmar from stem to stern and cut away over half her running rigging, in the process. Coupled with the way they'd shredded the sails themselves, the damage to the ship's linesand line-handlershad slowed their escape to a crawl.
The bombards had done nearly as much damage to the crew, as well. The quarterdeck was awash in blood and bodies, and the crew had put a gang of slaves to work pitching the offal over the side. The enemy's round shot had been bad enough, but the splinters it had ripped from the hull had been even worse. Some of them had been almost two-thirds as long as Cies himself, and one of them had gutted his original helmsman like a filleted fish. Nor was that the only crewman who'd been shredded by bits and pieces of his own ship. Some of that always happened when the bombards got a clear shot, but Cies had never imagined anything like this. Normal bombard balls were much slower than the Hell-forged missiles that had savaged his vessel. Worse, he'd never seen any ship that could pour out fire like water from a pump, and the combination of high-velocity shot and its sheer volume had been devastating beyond his worst nightmares of carnage.
Now the Rage was trying to limp to the south and away from the vengeful demons behind her. He'd hoped that with one of their own crippled (by what, for all intents and purposes, had been a single lucky shot) the other four might have let his own ship go. But it appeared they had other plans.
"We could . . ." Vunet said, then paused.
"You were about to suggest that we surrender," Cies said harshly. "Never! No Lemmar ship has ever surrendered to anyone other than Lemmar. Ever. They may take our ship, but not one crewman, not one slave, will be theirs."
"They're not heaving to," Roger said with a grunt. "Captain Pahner?"
"Yes, Your Highness?" the Marine replied formally.
"If we really want that ship intact, this is about to become a boarding action. I think it's about time to let the ground commander take over."
"You intend to take them on one-on-one?"
"I think we have to, if we don't want them to get away," Roger replied. Pahner gazed at him, and the prince shrugged. "Pentzikis, Tor Coll, and Sea Foam already have their hands full. Prince John can probably take the fourth pirateI doubt there's more than a couple dozen of these Lemmar still alive aboard her, and she sure as hell can't get away with no masts at all. But this guy in front of us isn't just lucky. He's smart . . . and good. If he weren't, he'd be drifting around back there with his buddies. So if you want him caught, we're the only one with a real shot at him."
"I see. And when we catch up with him, you'll be where, precisely, Your Highness?" Pahner asked politely.
"Like I say, Sir," Roger said, "it's time to let the ground commander take over."
"I see." Pahner gazed at him speculatively for several moments, considering what the prince hadn't said, then nodded with an unseen smile.
"Very well, Your Highness. Since boarding actions are my job, I'll just go and get the parties for this one assembled."
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