Aeronaut’s Windlass: Chapter One

Albion Merchant Ship Predator

Captain Grimm flicked the telescoptic up off of the right eyepiece of his heavy goggles. The Auroran airship was a faint blot against the thick clouds below, while Predator was hidden high above in the aerosphere by the glare of the sun. A storm was roiling through the mezzosphere, the layer of heavy cloud and mist that lay beneath them, but there was still time to reach the enemy vessel before the storm began to interfere with the ships’ systems.

Grimm nodded once, decisively. “We’ll go in on the currents. General quarters. Run out the guns. Spread the web, top, bottom, and flanks. Full power to the shroud. Set course for the Auroran vessel.”

“Sound general quarters!” Commander Creedy bawled, and the ship’s bell gave three quick rings, repeated in a surging clamor. “Guns, make ready!” The command was echoed down the length of Predator as the gun crews raced to their turrets. “Spread the web ’round the clock!” Leather-skinned men in goggles and surplus Fleet aeronautical leathers leaped into the masts and rigging of the airship, shouting back their compliance. Creedy grabbed the end of the speaking tube and called, “Engineering!”

“Engineering, aye,” came the tinny-sounding answer.

“Full power to the shroud, if you please, Mister Journeyman.”

“Full power to the shroud, aye. And tell the Captain to blow the hell out of them before they can touch our shroud. That storm’s too close. He times the approach wrong and we’ll be naked.”

“Maintain discipline, Mister Journeyman,” Creedy said severely.

“Maintenance is what I do, idiot,” snapped the engineer. “Don’t tell me my business, you jumped-up wollypog.”

“Let it go, XO,” Grimm said very quietly to Creedy. He was smiling, if only barely, at Journeyman’s response. The etheric engineer was quite simply too valuable to replace and the man knew it.

The taller, younger man scowled from behind his own goggles and folded his arms. “He should be setting an example for the other men in his compartment, Captain.”

Grimm shrugged a shoulder. “He isn’t going to, Commander. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone.” He folded his hands calmly behind his back. “Besides. He might be right.”

Creedy gave the captain a sharp look. “Sir?”

“It’s going to be very close,” Grimm replied.

Creedy stared hard at the Auroran ship and swallowed. It was one of the rival Spire’s Cortez-class ships—a large merchant cruiser much more massive than the Predator, carrying heavier guns and bearing a thicker shroud. Though the Cortez-class ships were officially trading vessels and not warships, they were well armed and had been known to carry an entire company of Auroran Marines. This ship, Grimm was sure, was the vessel responsible for the recent losses in Albion merchant shipping.

“Prepare boarders, sir?” Creedy asked.

Grimm arched an eyebrow. “We are bold and daring, Commander, but not maniacs. I’ll leave that to Commodore Rook and his friends in the Fleet. Predator is a private vessel.”

“Aye, sir,” Creedy replied. “Probably best if we didn’t linger about.”

“We’ll rake their web hard, force them down, drop a buoy, and let Rook go after them,” Grimm confirmed. “If we stay for a slugging match, that storm could come boiling up and disrupt our shroud.”

“And theirs,” Creedy pointed out. Good XOs did that in the Fleet, playing the devil’s advocate to the captain’s plans. Grimm found the practice mildly irritating. If he hadn’t owed Creedy’s sister a favor . . .

“They have more and larger guns than we do,” Grimm replied. “And much more ship than we do. If we hang naked in front of a Cortez, the worst captain in their fleet would send us all screaming down to the surface.”

Creedy shuddered. “Aye, sir.”

Grimm clapped the young man’s shoulder and gave him a brief smile. “Relax. When Fleet disciplines young officers so decisively, they do it to make an impression—so that when they return to their duties in Fleet, they won’t repeat their mistake. They mean to put you to work again, or it would have been a simple discharge. They’ll not leave you habbled for long. Then you’ll be clear of Predator and in a properly armored hull again.”

Predator is a fine ship, Captain,” Creedy said stoutly. “Just . . . a little more fragile than I’d like.”

And, Grimm thought, considerably less fragile than he knew. “Buck up, XO. Even if we don’t bring a prize ship back with us, the bounty for laming her and leaving her to Rook will earn us a tidy bonus. A hundred crowns a head, at least.”

Creedy grimaced. “While Rook rakes in hundreds of thousands of crowns in prize money. And buys his House a few more Councilors.”

Grimm closed his eyes and lifted his chin slightly as the men unreeled the nearly transparent ethersilk webbing. He didn’t need to watch to know the way the etheric web would change as the power runs carried electricity to it, making it stir and rise, becoming seemingly weightless. It caught the invisible currents of etheric energy coursing through the aerosphere, and the translucent silk strands, spread like great cobwebs for a good two hundred feet around the vessel itself, caught the force of the unseen etheric currents coursing through the skies and began pulling Predator forward. The slender ship gathered speed rapidly. The wind rose, cold and dry. Distant thunder from the sullen storm rumbled through the thin air.

The thought of Commodore Hamilton Rook gaining even more influence in the Spire didn’t particularly trouble Grimm. Most of the affairs of Spire Albion didn’t trouble him. Let the trogs in the Spires chew one another’s lips off, if that was what suited them. As long as he had Predator, he had everything he needed.

Kettle, the sailor at the control grips of the ship a few feet behind and above Grimm and Creedy, let out a short whistle. Grimm turned and lifted an eyebrow. “Mister Kettle?”

The grizzled sailor nodded down toward the approaching storm with his chin. “Skipper, you might consider a steeper descent than normal. Gravity will get us there quicker, and if the exchange doesn’t go well, we can just go right on past them into the clouds.”

“Mind yourself, aeronaut,” Creedy snapped. “If you have a suggestion, you can pass it to the captain through me. Those are the regulations on a Fleet vessel.”

“XO. This isn’t a Fleet vessel,” Grimm said quietly. “This is my ship. Let me think.”

Mister Kettle’s suggestion had merit. The extra speed of the dive would make the gunnery tricky, but their ship was sound, and they shouldn’t need miraculous shooting to disable the enemy ship in a surprise attack—and they would commence the engagement a few moments sooner, ahead of the storm. He far preferred their chances if the Predator’s shroud was intact around them.

Creedy, who could ride out a storm without blanching, began to look a little green at his captain’s views of Fleet regulations. But he glanced over his shoulder at Kettle and valiantly attempted to continue to do his duty as he saw it. “A steep dive seems unnecessary, sir. In all probability they won’t even realize we’re upon them until the guns open up.”

“We’re a long way from home, XO. I’d rather not deal in probability.” Grimm nodded back to the older sailor. “We’ll do it your way, Mister Kettle. Inform the gun crews to adjust their firing angles.”

“Aye, sir.”

Grimm tilted his head and considered the strong breeze blowing across the deck. “Mister Creedy,” he said, “have the men rig sail, if you please.”

Creedy paused and blinked in surprise. “Captain?”

Grimm didn’t blame the younger man for his reaction. Few airships utilized wind-sails these days. Steam-driven propellers and the new screwlike turbines were the preferred means of locomotion in the event that a ship dropped out of the aerosphere or was becalmed in some portion of the sky without etheric currents strong enough to propel a vessel. But sails had advantages of their own: They didn’t require bulky, heavy steam engines to function, and they were—compared to steam engines, at least—nearly silent.

It was funny, Grimm mused, how often in life a bit of judicious silence could come in handy.

“Keep them reefed for now,” Grimm said. “But I want them ready.”

“Aye, sir,” Creedy said, with even less enthusiasm than a few moments before—but he relayed the commands firmly.

After that, there was little to do but wait as the Predator took position for her dive. Standard battle gear included a harness with a number of attachment points on it. A lifeline was a six- to nine-foot length of heavy, braided line or leather with a clip on either end, and every man was required to have three of them on him when general quarters was sounded. Grimm and Creedy both hooked a pair of lines to the various rails and rings set about the airship for that exact purpose, cinching them in tight.

Once fastened in, Grimm paused to straighten his uniform. As the captain of an Albion merchant ship, he was not strictly required to wear one, but the crew had commissioned one for him after their first highly successful run as privateers. It was identical to the uniform of Fleet, but instead of his leathers being colored deep blue with gold trim, they were jet-black trimmed in bloodred. The two broad stripes of an airship captain adorned the end of each sleeve of his long coat. The coat’s skull-shaped silver buttons had seemed a bit excessive to him, but he had to admit that they did lend the outfit a credibly piratical air.

Last of all, as always, he cinched tight the strap of his peaked cap, securing it tight to his head. Aeronauts considered it very bad luck for the captain to lose his cap when his ship dived into battle, and Grimm had seen too many odd things in his day to be entirely liberated from the superstition himself.

It took several moments to cover the miles of distance between the Auroran vessel and Predator, and tension mounted the entire while, thick in the chill air, its rigidity visible in the spines of the gunners and aeronauts. Ship-to-ship combat was the most destructive violence known to man, and everyone on Predator knew it.

Grimm played his role as he always did. The men were permitted to be nervous and fearful—it was the only sane response to their situation, after all. But fear was a disease that could swell and spread, incapacitating crews and bringing on the destruction that had been dreaded in the first place. The captain was allowed no such luxury as fear. The men had to be sure—not only suspect, but be absolutely certain—that their captain knew precisely what he was doing. They had to know that their captain was invincible, infallible, immune to defeat. That sure and certain knowledge was critical to the crew—it allowed them to ignore their fear and to focus their minds upon their duties, as they’d been trained to do.

Men who functioned as trained, even in the hellish fury of an aerial battle, were absolutely vital to victory. Such a crew tended to suffer far less injury and loss of life—and Grimm would sooner hurl himself off Predator’s ventral mastworks than needlessly spend a drop of his crew’s blood. So he did what he could to make them fight as efficiently and ferociously as possible.

He did nothing.

Grimm stood calmly on the deck, his lifelines neat and taut, his hands folded behind him. He stared ahead and allowed himself to show no emotion whatsoever. He could feel the eyes that shifted to him from time to time, and he stayed steady, a reassuring and confident presence.

Creedy attempted to emulate his captain, with limited success. He clutched one rail so tightly that his knuckles had gone white, and his breath was coming too hard through his flared nostrils.

“XO,” Grimm said quietly, smiling. “Perhaps your gloves?”

Creedy looked down at his hand and hurriedly removed it from the rail. He spent a moment fishing his gloves from his pockets and donning them.

Grimm couldn’t blame the young man. This would be his first battle aboard Predator, a civilian vessel. Built of little more than wood, she was not clad in the sheets of brass and copper-shrouded steel armor a military vessel boasted. Should enemy fire penetrate her shroud, every blast would inflict hideous damage upon the ship and her crew alike—and a lucky shot could destroy her core crystal, unleashing a blast of energy that would spread both ship and crew across miles and miles of sky.

Creedy’s fears were grounded in years of experience upon warships of Spire Albion’s Fleet. Everything he knew told him that he was about to engage in a battle that could very well end in mutual annihilation, that Grimm was taking a horrible risk.

It wasn’t the XO’s fault that he had never fought upon Predator before.

It was time. His ship was in position, perhaps a mile and a bit more above the Auroran vessel.

“Sound maneuvers!” Grimm called.

The ship’s bell began to ring in a rapid staccato, a last warning to the ship’s company to secure safety lines before Predator went into battle.

Grimm felt a wolfish grin touch his mouth. He reached up to tighten the band of his peaked cap in preparation for the dive, and nodded slightly to one side. “Mister Kettle,” he said, “you may begin your dive.”