Grimm stood firm as Journeyman cut the power to the lift crystal’s suspension rig, and Predator dropped from the sky like a stone.
An attack dive was a small vessel’s maneuver. The actual fall would inflict little damage on a vessel of any size, but the sudden reduction of speed on the far end of the dive could be a severe strain upon her timbers. Larger ships, with their far heavier armor, suffered more from such pressures, and in order to decelerate slowly enough to ease those strains, a large ship had to lose so much altitude that it often could not return to the level of the engagement effectively. A truly efficient combat dive required a brief, severe period of reduction in speed, and Grimm had read accounts of battleships and dreadnaughts that had attempted a dive, only to have their lift crystals tear themselves entirely free of the ship when attempting to arrest their descent too rapidly. Sane captains rarely tried a combat dive with anything heavier than a light cruiser—but for a relatively tiny destroyer-size ship like Predator, the dangerous feat dwelled at the heart of battle doctrine.
Kettle kept his hands firm on the control grips, riding the ship into the dive, keeping her steady with the maneuvering planes mounted on her hull and in her tail. The etheric web still hauled the ship forward as before—but now she was rushing down as well, coming toward the Auroran ship almost directly out of the midday sun.
The deck began to buck and jolt as their speed built. Timbers moaned and flexed in protest, the pitch rising steadily. Only the safety lines of his harness held Grimm in place, and he was once more glad to be a man of only middling height—poor towering Creedy was trying to imitate Grimm’s stoic posture, and his head was being yanked about randomly as the ship bucked its way into battle.
The Auroran grew larger and larger, and the sound of Predator’s straining timbers continued to rise in tone and volume. All ships made their own individual sounds during a dive, though no one was sure precisely why. Grimm’s midshipman’s tour had been aboard a destroyer named the Speck. It had howled like a damned soul when it stooped upon a victim. Other ships wailed like enormous steam whistles. Still others took up a regular pounding rhythm, like the beating of some vast drum. Once, Grimm had been aboard the light cruiser Furious, which literally boomed out enormous snarls as it charged to combat.
But his ship outdid them all.
When Predator sailed into war, she sang.
The rapid winds and rising shrieks suddenly blended into a single harmonious tone. Lines in the rigging and the yards and the masts themselves quivered in time, and began giving off their own notes of music, in harmony with one another. As the speed increased, the chord rose and rose, and built and built, until it reached a crescendo of pure, eerie, inhuman fury.
Grimm felt the music rise around him, felt the ship straining eagerly to her task, and his own heart raced in fierce exultation in time with her. Every line of the ship, every smudge upon her decks, every stain upon the leathers of his aeronauts leapt into his mind in vibrant detail. He could feel the ship’s motion, forward and down, could feel the wind of her passage, could feel the rising terror of his crew. One of the men screamed—one of them always did—and then the entire crew joined in with Predator, shrieking their battle cries together with their ship’s. The ship would not fail them—Grimm knew it; he felt it, the way he could feel sunlight on his face or the rake of wind in his hair.
And he also felt it the instant their speed, their course, and their position were absolutely perfect.
“Now!” he thundered, raising his arm in a single, sharp motion.
Kettle pulled the altitude throttle from zero back up to its normal neutral buoyancy, and hauled hard on the steering grips. Though Grimm couldn’t see it, he knew what was happening: The engine room would have seen the throttle indicator, and even now Journeyman and his assistants would be unleashing power from the core crystal back into the lift crystal again, and the ship suddenly groaned as she began to slow.
At the same time, Predator pirouetted upon her center axis, leaning over to her port, and brought her port-side broadside to bear upon the Auroran ship. Even with the protection of his goggles’ dark lenses, the flash of seven etheric cannon forced him to wince and look away as they sent their charges screaming toward the Aurorans.
Each cannon was a framework of copper and brass around a copper-clad barrel of steel. A row of weapon crystals was suspended in the exact center of the barrel’s length upon copper wires, and when the weapon was activated, it behaved in much the same manner as a common gauntlet—except on a far larger scale. Then the energy of a cannon crystal was added to the outgoing rush of power, and the result was pure destruction.
A cannon bolt unleashed massive energy upon impact. A single hit from one of Predator’s cannon, if placed in precisely the right place, could incinerate most of an unarmored vessel. Seven such weapons turned their fury upon the Auroran ship, targeting the tips of her masts, where her etheric web spread out around her. Grimm watched intently for the results of the first salvo.
In theory, the light cannon aboard Predator could fire a bolt that would strike effectively from nearly two miles away. In practice, it took a steady ship, a steady target, skilled gunners, and no small amount of luck to hit something at more than half a mile, perhaps more if they used the heavier chase gun, Predator’s only medium cannon. A light ship’s defense was in its agility and speed, and they rarely cruised stably when they went into battle. Such cold-blooded trading of fire was for the heavier warships, armored to withstand multiple hits and carrying weapons ten times the size of Predator’s arms.
His gunnery crews were all veteran aeronauts of the Fleet, and he would match them against any active warship’s crew. Though Predator was moving swiftly, the target stood barely two hundred yards off her beam, and the men had known the exact angle at which Kettle would hold the ship.
Ships did not dodge broadsides at this range. One could hardly see a cannon’s blast in flight. It simply moved too quickly. There was the flash of the gun and the flash impression of a glowing comet dragging a tail of sparks, and then impact upon the target, with a barely detectable delay in between.
Not a single crew missed its target.
And not a shot landed.
Instead, there was a flash of emerald illumination perhaps twenty yards short of the enemy vehicle, as the cannon blasts struck the enemy ship’s shroud.
The shroud was a field of energy generated by a ship’s crystal power core. When a cannon blast struck the shroud, it illuminated like a hazy, spherical cloud flickering with lightning, absorbing the incoming fire and dispersing its energy safely before it could strike the ship. Shrouds were a strain upon a ship’s core, a tremendous demand upon the core’s energy reserve. One did not simply sail along with the ship’s shroud raised and in place.
Grimm’s eyes widened as time seemed to stop.
Predator’s cannon had ripped deeply into the enemy’s shroud, the energy of the blasts chewing away at the defensive field, almost all the way to the Auroran’s hull. But they had not inflicted any damage.
The Auroran vessel’s shroud was up and in place.
Therefore she had seen Predator coming.
Therefore she had been watching.
Therefore the Auroran had intended to be spotted, sitting fat and lazy on a sluggish current just above the mezzosphere, a perfect target—and she would be ready to return fire.
Even as Grimm flashed through those thoughts, he saw signal rockets flare out from the Auroran—as if the shrieking thunder of discharged cannon wouldn’t have alerted the Auroran’s allies.
Creedy screamed in fury. He had obviously reached the same conclusions Grimm had, and he’d likely thought that it would be his death scream. After all, no ship the size of Predator, unarmored, could survive the weight of fire the Auroran could throw back at her.
And an instant later, the Auroran returned fire.
The deck was nearly bleached away by the flash of light that spilled forth from Predator’s shroud when the Auroran guns spoke. The enemy ship carried twelve light cannon in her broadside to Predator’s seven, and if they were slightly less powerful individually, the difference was hardly worth noticing. The enemy fire lit up Predator’s shroud like a bank of fog, and wiped it away almost before it could be seen.
But her shroud held, stopping the worst of the enemy fire no more than a dozen feet from her hull, and bathing the ship in the sharp smell of ozone.
Creedy’s scream broke off in a shocked, choking sound.
Grimm would laugh about that later, if he survived the next few moments. For now, he had a maneuver to complete—and then a trap to escape.
“Kettle!” he boomed, signaling with his hands at the same time, “complete the dive and take us into the mist!”
“Aye, sir!” answered the veteran pilot; then he set his feet and hauled on the steering grips, his teeth clenched, his neck straining with the effort.
Predator had stooped upon the Auroran from above her and to her starboard. Now, as they dove beneath her, Kettle rolled the ship again, far onto her port side, presenting her starboard broadside to the Auroran’s lower hull and ventral rigging.
Again Predator’s guns howled their fury, but this time there was a difference. Leftenant Hammond, the starboard gunnery officer, had spotted the enemy’s shroud, and in the bare seconds between that stunning revelation and his crews’ chance to fire he had reassigned targeting. Now Predator’s guns fired in a rippling sequence, one after another—each aimed exactly amidships on the Auroran.
Ripple fire was an old tactic for hammering through a ship’s shroud, though it took tremendous training and skill to pull off. The first shot blew aside a portion of the shroud, creating a cavity in its defenses. The second lanced in deeper, into the opening created by the first, before it also claimed its portion of the shroud. Then the third and the fourth and so on.
The number six gun’s blast left black scorch marks on the enemy’s hull.
Number seven’s shot exploded almost exactly in the center of the enemy’s belly.
There was a roar of released energy, a flash of hellishly bright light. A section of hull a good thirty feet across simply vanished, transformed into a cloud of soot and deadly splinters that flew up through the ship above them, hurled like spears by the force of the blast. Fire consumed the hull around the hole, and roiled and boiled through the vulnerable guts of the Auroran ship above them. Shattered ventral web-masts fell from the ship, only to become tangled in their own rigging and in the finer, nearly invisible shimmers of her ventral web. The sudden drag and the abrupt absence of her ventral web changed both the ship’s propulsive balance and her center of gravity, and she began listing heavily to port. The blast had also smashed one of her two ventral planes to splinters, and as she rolled, she began to yaw as well.
Creedy, Kettle, and every crewman on the deck let out fierce, savage cries of triumph. Though they had by no means dealt the Auroran a mortal blow, she was, for the moment, severely lamed. She was still deadly, with her more numerous guns, bloodied but whole behind her mostly solid shroud, but in a duel between the two ships, Predator would now have the upper hand.
Grimm didn’t watch the secondary explosions in the other ship, as flickering discharges of etheric energy found volatile crystals aboard the Auroran, probably upon the gauntlets in a weapons locker. He had already flipped his telescoptic back down and was raking the surrounding skies with his gaze and the telescopic lenses, searching for whomever the Auroran had been signaling.
The second vessel rose out of the mists of the mezzosphere, murky clouds roiling off of her spars and rigging, boiling down off of her plated flanks and leaving her armored sides gleaming as she rose into the harsh light of the sun. The banner of the armada of Spire Aurora flew bold from both dorsal and ventral masts, two blue stripes on a field of white, with five scarlet stars spangled between the blue stripes. Across her prow was painted in gold, ASA Itasca.
Staring at her, Grimm felt his bones turn cold. Itasca was a ship of legend, with a battle record stretching back more than five hundred years, and the Aurorans considered her a fine prize to be given to veteran captains on the fast route to their own admiralty. Grimm couldn’t remember her commander’s name at the moment, but he would be one of the Aurorans’ best.
Worse, Itasca was a battlecruiser, a vessel designed specifically to run down ships like Predator and hammer them into clouds of glowing splinters. She could take the full punishment of Predator’s guns without flinching, and her own weapons—some four times Grimm’s own broadside, and nearly as heavy as those of a battleship—would slam aside Predator’s shroud and destroy the ship and crew behind it in a single salvo. Worse, trusting in her armored plates and shroud, Itasca could stand off and fire accurately from a range Predator could never hope to match. Even worse, she had an armored warship’s multiple power cores, and could store, deploy, and charge a far greater length of web than Predator, so that even with her vast additional mass, Grimm might not be able to outrun Itasca before her guns brought the race to a premature conclusion.
The only thing they had going for them was blind luck: The Auroran warship had come up from the mist almost two thousand yards away—though Grimm thought it worth noting that if Predator had come down at the standard angle of attack instead of at Kettle’s more daring dive angle, Itasca would have come up barely a hundred yards to port. Itasca’s captain, whoever he was, had been lucky in positioning his vessel—after all, the Albion privateer could have dived down on the merchant cruiser from any angle, and Itasca’s captain had no way of knowing from which way he’d come. But he’d outthought Grimm and predicted his attack successfully. That was the kind of luck a smart captain made for himself.
“Kettle!” he snapped. “Dive, now!”
The helmsman’s hand was moving toward the throttle in instant obedience even as he blinked in surprise—and then looked past the captain to see Itasca turning her overwhelming broadside to them.
The ship dropped again, without any maneuvers warning, catching many off guard. There were screams. Grimm saw Leftenant Hammond fly upward from the deck, held down by only a single safety line—the gunnery officer had to have rushed up and down the line of gunners, giving his crews instructions in rapid succession in order to pull off his ripple-fire maneuver. Grimm thanked God in Heaven that the man had remembered to keep one line secure despite his haste.
For an instant, Grimm thought he’d avoided engaging Itasca entirely—and then, just as Predator reached the top layer of the mists, Itasca opened fire.
Grimm’s ship was a small target, as ships went: Predator was barely more than a destroyer in terms of mass. She was moving fast as well, and at an oblique angle. Considering how far away Itasca rode, it would take a fiendishly skilled or lucky gunner indeed to place blasts on target, especially with crews whose eyes were used to the dimness of the mists and now rose into the brilliance of the aerosphere.
Someone on Itasca was skilled. Or lucky.
The blast of the warship’s heavy cannon ripped a hole in Predator’s shroud as easily as a stone hurtling through a cobweb. The round burst at the top of the rearmost dorsal mast, and only the steep angle of Predator’s renewed dive saved her. The explosion tore her topside masts away completely, hungrily devouring her entire dorsal web in a lacework of fire as it went. Shards and splinters of wood went flying, and Grimm heard crewmen scream as a cloud of deadly missiles ripped into the starboard gun crews. Shrapnel hit the main crystal of the starboard number three gun, and it went up in a green-white flash that killed its crew and left a gaping wound a good twelve feet across in the ship’s flank. An aeronaut named Aricson in one of the adjacent crews screamed as the section of deck to which his safety lines were fastened went flying out and away from Predator, dragging him with it. He shrieked in terror for an instant, and then man and scream both vanished into the mist, as the swirling sea of fog reached up and swallowed Predator whole.
“Evasive action!” Grimm ordered. The distant screaming roars of the Itasca’s guns continued, and he heard the hungry hissing of blasts streaking through the mists around them, making them glow with hellish light. They had been lucky to survive a single glancing hit. Thirty guns raked the mist, and Grimm knew the enemy ship would be rolling onto her starboard side, giving the gunners a chance to track their approximate line of descent. If the same gunner or one of his fellows got lucky again, Predator would not be returning home to Spire Albion.
Kettle turned the steering grips hard as the cold mist enveloped them, and the ship slalomed lower into the mezzosphere while Grimm waited for the round that would kill his ship and his crew, forcing himself not to hold his breath. All the while, Predator sang her defiance to the mists, the chord shifting and changing with each alteration of her course, and the sound drifted up behind them like mocking laughter.
Grimm clenched his fists and ground his teeth. It was all very well for his ship to behave in such a fashion, but he sometimes wished that Predator could think as well as taunt the enemy. There was nothing to be done for it. Grimm simply had to hope that the mists of the mezzosphere would muffle and confuse the source of the sound, giving Itasca’s gunners no clear target.
He waited for as long as he dared, nearly a minute, and then screamed, “Pull her up!”
Kettle signaled the engine room, and their wild descent began to slow. A few measured breaths later, Predator leveled out, and they simply waited, everyone on deck entirely silent while Kettle struggled to trim the wounded ship as she completed her dash.
After a time, Grimm slowly exhaled and bowed his head. He reached up and wearily removed his goggles. The wet air felt cold and sticky against the skin around his eyes.
“They aren’t chasing us,” Creedy breathed, bringing his own goggles down.
“Of course not. Itasca’s too damned big,” Grimm replied. His voice sounded hoarse and thin in his own ears. His neck and shoulders felt as if they’d been replaced with bars of brass. “A monster like that can’t dive with Predator. Besides, no Auroran captain would try to follow us in this murk for fear of looking ridiculous. Two blind men can’t have a very dignified chase.”
Creedy snorted through his nose.
“Damage control,” Grimm said quietly, unfastening his safety lines. “Make sure Doctor Bagen has everything he needs to see to the wounded. Call the roll. I’ll be in my cabin.”
Creedy nodded, looking slowly around them. “Sir?”
“This ship’s shroud . . . it’s extremely powerful for a vessel of this size.”
The young officer hadn’t actually asked the question, but it hung unspoken in the air between them. Grimm didn’t like prevarication. It complicated life. But though he thought the young officer was a decent enough sort, he wasn’t ready to extend that much trust. Not yet. So he gave the XO a flat gaze and said, “See to the ship, if you please, Mister Creedy.”
Creedy snapped to attention and threw him an academy-perfect salute. “Yes, sir, Captain.”
Grimm turned and went to the privacy of his cabin. He closed the door behind him and sat down on his bunk. The battle was over.
His hands started to shake, and then his arms, and then his belly. He curled his chest up to his knees and sat quietly for a moment, shuddering in the terror and excitement he hadn’t allowed himself to feel during the engagement.
Aricson’s scream echoed in Grimm’s head. He closed his eyes, and the purple blotch the dying number three gun had burned on his retina hovered in his darkened vision.
Stupid. He’d been stupid. He’d been tearing huge swaths of profit from the Auroran merchant fleet. It had been inevitable that they would eventually respond to him. Some idiot would probably say that the fact that they’d sent Itasca to deal with him was a high compliment. Said idiot wouldn’t be visiting the families of the dead men to give them his condolences and their death pay. He knew that he’d made sound decisions given what he’d known at the time, but some of his men were dead because of them nonetheless.
They were dead because he’d commanded them, and they’d followed. They’d known the risks, to a man, and every one of them was ex-Fleet. Things could have gone immeasurably worse than they had—but that would be little comfort to the newly minted widows back at the home Spire.
He sat and shuddered and regretted and promised dead men’s shades that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
He was the captain.
By the time Creedy arrived with the damage report, Grimm had reassembled himself.
“Captain,” Creedy said respectfully. “I don’t think your accomplishments have been properly appreciated at home.”
“Oh?” Grimm asked.
“Yes, sir,” Creedy said. Controlled admiration crept into his tone. “I mean, for the Aurorans to dispatch Itasca to mousetrap a lone privateer . . . when you think about it, it’s really a kind of compliment, sir.”
“Captain Castillo is one of their best,” Creedy went on. “His attack was nearly perfect, but you slipped right through his fingers. If you were a captain in the Fleet you’d have merited tactical honors for . . .”
Creedy’s face reddened and his voice trailed off.
“There are worse things to happen to a man than being drummed out of the Fleet, XO,” Grimm said quietly. “Casualties, then damage reports. How bad?”
“Bad enough,” Creedy said. “Five dead, six injured—shrapnel, mostly, and a concussion from an aeronaut in engineering who unhooked his second line too soon.”
Grimm nodded. “The ship?”
“The dorsal masts are stubs. We’ll need to get to a yard to replace them. We had to cut the rigging loose and drop it, so we lost most of the dorsal web. There’s a hole in the gun deck where the number three gun was—we’ll need a yard to repair that, too. And we blew two cables in our suspension rig.”
Grimm took a slow breath. The suspension rig was the central structure of the ship, built around the main lift crystal. The weight of the entire ship hung suspended from the rig, and was distributed through its cables. There were eight of them, any two enough to bear the weight of the entire vessel . . . but the more cables broke, the more likely it was that those remaining would break—especially during any high-speed maneuvers. The loss of the occasional cable was expected, but was never to be taken lightly.
“You’re saving the best for last, I think,” Grimm said.
Creedy grimaced. “Chief Journeyman says there are fractures in the main lift crystal.”
Grimm stopped himself from spitting an acid curse and closed his eyes. “That second dive, so soon after the first.”
“That was his theory, sir. He’s cut power to the lift crystal, and is running extra to the trim crystals to make up the difference in buoyancy and keep us afloat.”
Grimm smiled faintly and opened his eyes. There would be no prize money on this trip, and no bounty, either. The trim crystals that helped adjust the ship’s attitude were expensive, and using them to help maintain the ship’s lift would be hard on them, but replacing them was a standard operating cost. The large crystals sufficiently powerful to suspend airships were another matter—they were far rarer and much more bitterly expensive. Only a power core cost more, assuming one could be found at all.
Where would he get the money?
“I see,” Grimm said. “We’ll simply have to replace it, I suppose. Perhaps Fleet will put in a word with the Lancasters.”
Creedy gave him a smile that contained more artifice than agreement. “Yes, sir.”
“Well,” Grimm said. “It seems we need to return home. A bit earlier than we’d planned, but that’s all right.”
“Set course for Spire Albion, sir?”
“We’re in the mist, XO,” Grimm replied. “We can’t take our bearings until we get back up into open sky. Where Itasca is doubtless hunting for us.”
A low, groaning tone rumbled through the cabin’s portal. After several seconds it rose higher and higher and higher, into a kind of distorted whistle, and then faded away.
Creedy stared out the portal and licked his lips. “Sir, was that . . . ?”
“Mistmaw,” Grimm replied quietly. “Yes.”
“Um. Isn’t that a danger to the ship, sir?”
“Swallow us whole,” Grimm agreed. “They aren’t usually aggressive this time of year.”
Grimm shrugged. “If it decides to come eat us, we can’t stop it, XO. Our popguns will only make it angry.”
“The beasts are that big?”
Grimm found himself smiling. “They’re that big.” He inhaled and exhaled slowly. “And they’re attracted to powered webbing.”
Creedy glanced out the portal again. “Perhaps we should cut power to the web and reel it in, sir.”
“I think that would be very wise, XO,” Grimm said. “Though I expect Journeyman cut power to the web within a moment after we pulled out of the dive. Unfurl the sails. We’ll spend the night moving with the wind, come up sometime tomorrow, and trust that Itasca won’t be sitting there waiting for us.”
Creedy nodded. Once again the strange, long call of the sounding mistmaw vibrated through the cabin. “Sir? What do we do about that?”
“The only thing we can, XO,” Grimm said. “We stay very, very quiet.” He nodded a dismissal to Creedy and said, “Raise sail. The sooner we get moving, the sooner we get back to Spire Albion.”