This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Marc DeSantis
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
The steam frigate NMS Warsong was making good time. Captain Johan Truscott had run out the ship’s log himself, and verified what his navigator had estimated as the vessel’s speed. The Warsong was doing a steady fourteen knots, despite a headwind. Clouds of black smoke belched from the midship stack, the coal-fired, triple-expansion boiler below working hard to push the frigate through the waves. There was no need to hammer the engine to the maximum yet, not till the Warsong had closed on the Strait of Fulbright. Then he would call upon every bit of power it could give him.
Truscott turned and walked to the Warsong’s darkened bridge, just aft of the mizzenmast. He ducked his head under the low doorway and stepped inside. He found the ship’s navigator, Lieutenant James Wilson, bent over his charts. “We will be in Osaka in under a week, Captain.”
“Good, good,” Truscott said. “I don’t want to be out on this ocean any longer than I need to be.”
Wilson nodded in agreement. The seas of New Marlborough were full of pirates operating all types of swift raiding craft, from tiny sloops to large ironclads. They were most numerous where the pickings were plentiful – close to shore, where all ships eventually had to approach, or in the chokepoints of the planet’s geography, such as the Strait of Fulbright, where the Warsong was now headed.
“The seas are not getting any friendlier,” Wilson opined.
Truscott laughed lightly. He knew that Wilson would not understand why he found his comment to be humorous, despite how obviously true it was. The navigator was a young man, no more than twenty-five standard “Earth” years in age. Truscott was nearing one hundred ten, though he looked to be no more than thirty, a consequence of the rejuvenation treatments that all children had once received on New Marlborough, before the catastrophe that wrecked the planet and its vibrant civilization.
Wilson did not remember New Marlborough the way it had once been, before the Devastation, when Truscott had been young. The world had been a place of plenty then, a garden, so much like Earth, and peaceful. Truscott had been in his third year at university when the war came. Hundreds of millions had perished. The major cities, and almost all of the smaller ones, were destroyed in under an hour. The war fleets of the enemy were gone before the bulk of New Marlborough’s meager defenses could even deploy. The planetary population had been reduced by ninety-five percent in that single strike.
Truscott’s father had been a fusion reactor engineer, his mother a nanosurgeon. Both had been lost in the attack. Lieutenant Wilson, on the other hand, was the son of a blacksmith, a man who worked before an open flame and hammered and shaped glowing metal with only the might of his arm. The world into which Wilson had been born bore scarce resemblance to the one that Truscott remembered. Fusion power had disappeared. Electricity was now found only in a few cities along the Lancaster coast and a handful of other fortunate places. Wilson had been fifteen before he had seen his first light bulb. What could he know of the world of science and technology that had once existed, that had been taken for granted on New Marlborough for centuries before he was born? Wilson could forge a knife, a shovel, even a sword, and had learned how to read charts and find a ship’s position using a compass and sextant. But he had never been off-planet, which Truscott had been numerous times before he had turned twenty, before the war came.
Truscott left the bridge and went to the bow of the Warsong. He raised his binoculars to his eyes and scanned the ocean ahead. The horizon was clear of any other vessel, and he exhaled slowly. He hoped to slip by Mackenzie Island under cover of darkness tonight, but he did not to expect to elude all of the buccaneers lurking at sea. There were simply too many of them, and they were clever. A half-dozen of their ships, of all sizes, operating together, would sometimes string themselves out along a line covering a dozens of miles. If any one ship sighted a target, the spotting craft would signal to its comrades to pounce.
This wolfpack tactic did not always succeed. Functional radios were in short supply, light signals were unreliable, and the pirates could still be outrun by a faster vessel such as the Warsong. Pirate craft typically relied solely upon sails for propulsion, unlike the New Marlborough Navy’s own, most of which used coal-fired steam. Screw frigates, a hybrid ship moved by sails and a propeller driven by a steam engine, had lately become a popular type with the Navy, now that even coal was in erratic supply. A ship needed sails if its coal bunkers ever emptied.
Truscott ran his hand affectionately along the bow railing. The Warsong was not his first command, there had been many others before her, but there was a romance to this sailing ship that the others had lacked, with their angular metal plates and riveted turrets. The Warsong was sleek, built of the finest woods found in Lancaster’s dense forests. Truscott had selected the trees for the three masts himself, and had overseen her construction in the busy dockyards of Osaka. Her bow was like a dagger blade, sharp and delicate. Truscott’s emotions were mixed, though, whenever he thought of her. She was at once an artistic triumph, and a defeat too, a source of both pride and melancholy. Before the war, sails had been used only on a few pleasure boats with supplemental electroplasmotors. Now he commanded a ship of war with towering masts that also spewed coal smoke like a simmering volcano. The Warsong was beautiful, but how could she be called progress?
Truscott sighed as he mentally keyed the voicecomm, subdermally-implanted on his larynx, to call his executive officer and gunnery commander, who was overseeing the large cannons on the gundeck below. “How are the guns, Commander Wang?”
After a two-second pause, a voice answered back, clear as a bell, the miniature electronic receiver in Truscott’s ear still functioning perfectly after so many years. “The guns are ready, and the ammunition prepped,” Wang answered.
The big guns, some fifty-four two-hundred millimeter smoothbore monsters, were mounted broadside on a single deck. Each could throw a forty-kilogram shell nearly a mile on two bags of propellant. Their accuracy was poor, at least when compared to the astounding standards of old-fashioned electromagnetic weaponry, but what was lacking in individual accuracy was compensated for by their large numbers. Only a few ships of the fleet, just the ironclad heavy cruisers, mounted railguns and missiles. Lesser ships such as the Warsong, beauty though she was, were fortunate to possess one or two of the rare antiship missiles that the Navy retained in its armory.
The factories where such marvels had once been made were among the first targets to be destroyed. What missiles, or railguns, for that matter, as still existed, were either rare survivors of the conflict, or made long afterwards, inferior copies of the originals. Truscott recalled the history that he had learned of ancient Rome, after the Caesars had fallen. Europe had been overrun by barbarians, and civilization had collapsed, much like it had on New Marlborough. Pockets of culture and sophistication survived, but for the mass of people in Western Europe, civilization failed.
Truscott had pondered the fate of Europe in the Dark Ages as a boy. At the age of nine he had been taken on a visit to Rome by his parents. The ruined buildings of the Eternal City brought out a sad fascination in him. How could so much be lost and forgotten? Why did the culture of Europe regress so far? It would be more than a thousand years, not until the Renaissance, that Europe regained the technical and economic sophistication that it had possessed under the Romans.
The imagery of the ruined portions of Rome, still standing, and carefully preserved by archaeologists, had remained with him. Idly, in the languid days before the Devastation, Truscott had supposed that such a thing could never happen again, not in modern times. Even if a destructive war came, civilization could never again collapse so thoroughly. In the ancient world, learning was locked in books, rare things, written out by hand, and not many could read them in any case. Also, much technical information was known to only a talented few, secrets jealously guarded by their possessors, and when they died, or fled to other, more civilized parts, they took their knowledge with them. Staring out to sea, Truscott knew how wrong he had been.
There were other parallels, ones that were still so bitter to Truscott that he could feel the choler rising in his chest. He remembered that once the Mediterranean Sea had been deemed a Roman lake, with all of its shores under the control of the emperors. They had ruthlessly stamped out piracy. Trade had flourished. Then the Romans weakened, and the Vandals established a kingdom in North Africa, and preyed upon shipping. They had even dared to attack the city of Rome itself, and sacked it.
New Marlborough was much the same. There was a time when he and his parents had vacationed on the Lincoln Archipelago, arriving by grav skimmer at the beginning of every summer. They had a beachfront house there, a small cottage with a beautiful view of the Tethys Ocean. Now the Archipelago was a nightmare world, infested with pirates waiting in every lagoon and brigands hiding in the hills ashore. Lincoln University, once well-regarded among the worlds of the Confederation, was no more. The pirates, like the barbarians of old Europe, had little interest in anything that wasn’t a weapon. It was good that they were so ignorant, Truscott reasoned, or else his mission to acquire the cargo that the Warsong now carried in its hold would never have succeeded.
A squawk came over the ship’s scratchy intercom. “Captain?” He was wanted back on the small bridge at the rear of the ship.
“Yes, Mr. Lopez?” Twenty-year-old Ensign Etienne Lopez was another of the youngsters aboard. He operated the Warsong’s antique surface search and air search radars.
“We are picking up a signal on surface search,” Lopez said earnestly. “It could be a ship, made of iron. The return is too strong to be wood.”
“I’ll take a look.” Truscott turned and went to the stern of the Warsong. He descended a narrow set of stairs and again entered the bridge. He found Lopez huddled over his screen. “This is the return,” Lopez said. “It is headed south.” He pointed to the ancient radar. “It is still far away. One hundred-fifty kilometers. But it is on a course to intercept us, moving fast.” Lopez turned his head to face Truscott. “Near the Strait, Captain.”
“I didn’t think we had been spotted,” Truscott muttered. He kept four lookouts on watch at all times of the day. None had reported even a hint of another craft as they traversed the Tethys Ocean. But the last week had seen a string of moonlit nights as New Marlborough’s satellite Galileo hung large and bright in the night sky. There was always the chance that someone had seen them and that his lookouts had missed that other ship.
“Mr. Wang, I expect to engage a hostile vessel no later than this afternoon,” he said over his voicecomm. Casimir Wang was the only other person aboard with this technology, a tiny transmitter that allowed instant communication over a range of a dozen kilometers. They had stopped implanting the devices after the war, of course. Now the things were regarded as almost magical, and the other crewmen occasionally whispered that the minds of the captain and his executive officer were linked by the supernatural. It added to the mystique of the two officers that they were able to communicate in this way. Being ‘Old Men,’ as Wang and he were called, brought an advantage in securing quick obedience from the crew, even though neither he nor Wang appeared to be any more elderly than the older brothers of the youngsters aboard.
Wang clambered up from the gundeck and stepped onto the bridge. “You picked up something on surface search?” he inquired. He ran his fingers through his damp red hair. “I had been hoping for an uneventful run.”
Truscott shook his head. “Not this time, XO. The return is poor. It can’t be a very tall ship. Most of it is probably getting lost in the clutter of the waves. I think it is an ironclad, maybe a coastal monitor type.”
Wang was incredulous. “This far south?”
“It is not a proper vessel for the open ocean, but I suppose it is what the pirates have,” Truscott said.
“Could it be a Mercantile ship?” Wang asked. “Could they know of our cargo?”
Truscott felt his stomach turn. He had considered the possibility that his mission to the Archipelago had been compromised. He had persuaded himself that he was being paranoid. But now that Wang had voiced the same concern, he felt his gnawing sense of fear return in force. The Mercantile Group had spies everywhere. They were one of the few states on New Marlborough with an understanding of old-line technology nearly on par with that of Lancaster. They were not above stealing from others, even though they professed loudly to all and sundry that they were merely peaceful traders. The Warsong’s cargo was a prize beyond measure in these diminished times.
The South Gagarin Mercantile Group was a collection of trading city-states that had formed in the wake of the Devastation. They were in some cases the remnants of corporations that had turned their factory towns into fortified areas against the marauders that preyed upon the weak after the war. Others were the creation of fancifully-minded thugs with guns who styled themselves as kings when civil order broke down, and in exchange for protection, persuaded their hapless populations to accept them as such. A very few were local government holdovers from the pre-war era, when New Marlborough had been a unified planet.
The diversity of governments in the Group, created as much for mutual protection as the economic benefit of the members, made categorizing them difficult. A few, such as Arles and Spring Harbor, were relatively civilized, progressive cities, at least as far as that term was understood today. The Kingdom of Rochester, on the other hand, was nothing more than a pirate mini-empire masquerading as a nation. Rochester’s ships were slapdash affairs, but more than sufficient to prey upon Tethys Ocean shipping as it approached the Strait.
Lancaster itself had tangled with Rochester on-and-off for decades. Usually, the Kingdom’s ships steered well clear of her powerful vessels. Lancaster, situated on the eastern coast of Gagarin, the world’s largest continent, had been spared the worst of the attack. It had been sparsely populated, and so only a secondary target. The lone military base to survive the Devastation had been located at Osaka, which had become the capital of the newborn Republic of Lancaster.
Lancastrians were proud of their heritage, and considered themselves to be the one legitimate government left on the world, the real heir of New Marlborough’s pre-war planetary government. That is why they insisted on calling their warships the New Marlborough Navy, after the fleet of gravitic fishery patrol craft that had monitored the catch of the planet’s teeming oceans and been homeported in Osaka before the war.
Osaka’s survival had been something of a fluke. The navy base had been so tiny that the enemy must have considered it unworthy of attention in their initial strike. It had also been, from what Lancaster’s people were able to piece together afterwards, on the far side of the planet from the enemy fleet’s sunward approach. So the continent of Manitoba in the western hemisphere had borne the brunt of the attack, which gave Osaka in the east time to bring its weapons systems online. The awakened defenses clawed the three antimatter warhead-tipped missiles out the sky that had been meant to vaporize the city. Osaka had suffered nonetheless, but no other city with a military presence had been so fortunate.
So much had been lost on New Marlborough. Some had been lost in a fiery instant. But much else had faded and then disappeared in the long and squalid aftermath of the attack. This troubled Truscott immensely. How did people forget what they once knew? Why was New Marlborough’s technological civilization slipping away, almost before his eyes? He could see it happening year after year, as ancient technologies long-discarded by humanity were resurrected because nothing more advanced would still work.
Truscott recalled his professor of history from his university days. The wizened man, some two hundred fifty years old at the time, but still hale and mentally acute, had described the calamities that had befallen Rome in the sixth century in vivid detail. The fall of the Roman Empire in 476, in the century previous, was not so important, he had said. It was actually the following sixth century that had seen the civilization of the classical world in Western Europe come to a calamitous end. In the early sixth century, Rome still had consuls, and the scholarly Boethius could write a learned work even while under arrest, displaying a profound knowledge of the best of classical philosophy. Italy was under the control of the barbarian and heretic Goths, but they were themselves ruled by the wise King Theodoric, who had been brought up in Constantinople, the capital of the eastern half of the Empire. Though he was a non-Orthodox, Arian Christian, he showed a profound respect for Roman culture.
Then Justinian, Emperor in the East, sent his armies to reclaim Italy from the Goths. The ensuing wars were devastating, and Italy had been ruined. Aqueducts were destroyed, and the populations of the cities shrank. The Goths were eventually defeated, but lasting peace did not come to the country, as the wildly barbaric Lombards in their northern forest homes saw the weakness of the land and invaded it soon afterwards. By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great huddled anxiously inside Rome as the Lombards marauded across the peninsula. A diminished age of fear had begun. Many Romans fled Italy altogether for the safety of Constantinople.
“Captain!” Lopez turned in his seat and pointed to the air search radar screen, a cranky machine that had an ignominious history of giving false positives. It was usually ignored. Not much flew on New Marlborough anymore, and almost all of that which did belonged to Lancaster. “You’d better take a look at this,” Lopez urged.
Truscott bent over to look at the screen. “What is it?”
“Air search radar. We’re getting a return,” Lopez said uncomfortably. “I know it is hard to believe, but there it is.”
The young man stretched out his hand and pointed to the glowing green blip on the screen. It was about fifteen kilometers astern.
“This set is old,” Truscott countered. “Maybe you’re just picking up a kaeratabird. Or a dense cloud.” Truscott knew that he was engaging in wishful thinking, hoping for another false positive.
Ensign Lopez shook his head. “The bogey’s at an altitude of 2,700 meters. That’s too high for kaeratabirds, or any other type of biologic.”
Truscott nodded, and turned to the helm. “Hard to starboard. Due south heading. Maximum speed for ten minutes.”
The helmsman obeyed, and the engines beneath the decking throbbed fiercely as they met the sudden demand for power. Truscott and Wang continued to huddle over the screen behind his radar operator. Lopez was well-trained, at least in that he had been given what passed for a technical education these days. He knew what he was about.
“What’s happening?” Truscott demanded after several minutes passed, though he could read the screen for himself. He knew full well what was happening.
“The bogey has altered course and is following us south.”
Truscott grimaced. Had he expected anything else? “It can’t be an aircraft. Not this far out.” The fabric-covered biplanes of the Mercantile Group didn’t have the range or reliability to make it one-tenth of the way across the Tethys. “It must be an airship.”
“The radar return is very small,” Lopez said. “Not much metal in a blimp, or even a rigid airship, certainly. That would explain why we’re not getting a good radar reflection off of that thing.”
“An airship would also explain how the other ship knew about us,” Wang added. “I’ll bet that ‘eye in the sky’ has been shadowing us for some time.” Aircraft were so rare that the lookouts often forgot to watch for them. An airship was slow, but had enormous range, and was fast enough to follow a frigate moving under steam power. Truscott wished now that he had chosen to go the long way, south and east around the continent of Carpathia, but it was winter, and the icebergs that calved off from Carpathia’s southern shores presented a huge danger to a wooden-hulled ship. His mission had also been given top-priority, so time was critical. Too, the Warsong would have run out of coal somewhere after rounding the eastern shore of Carpathia if he had chosen that route, and would have had only its sails for further movement. Lancaster’s navy brass had promised that a squadron would meet him at the Strait to provide protection. So he had chosen the shorter route through pirate-infested waters. It felt like a mistake.
“I’m going topside to take a look at our new friend,” Truscott said.
Wang returned to the gundeck while Truscott walked to his cabin in the stern of the ship. His quarters were spacious, as far as such things went. He had enough room to stand up straight, turn around, and do light calisthenics. He smelled the ship’s sanialwood timbers, their fresh scent mingling with the acrid smoke belched forth by the coal-fired furnace below. It was a combination of the world’s most natural, and pleasant, with that of man’s most unnatural. He punched the combination into his storage chest’s lock and opened it. He withdrew a bundle wrapped in cloth, about the size of a small rocket, and carried it out of his cabin and then topside. He was now standing on the aftdeck of the Warsong, directly above the bridge. He set the bundle down and carefully unfolded the tripod legs of his prized possession. It was little more than an amateur astronomer’s telescope, made by United Optics, Inc., of Honolulu, Hawaii, and purchased by his parent’s for his fourteenth birthday almost a century ago. In those days it was the kind of gift that indulgent parents gave to a star-obsessed child. Now it was one of the most sophisticated scientific instruments left on New Marlborough.
Truscott waited patiently for the telescope to power up, and then manually sought out the blimp, first at low power, with its widest field of view. Spotting the dirigible was not difficult. He narrowed the focus and the airship emerged into sharp detail. Because of its distance, it appeared to be stationary, cruising as it was at less than one hundred kilometers per hour. Truscott centered the luminous targeting crosshairs on the airship and depressed a small button on the side of the scope. It would now track the aircraft automatically, for as long as the machine could keep it within its field of view. A helpful feature included by its Hawaiian manufacturers for the sake of budding young astronomers, now put to good military use on a blasted world.
Truscott studied the aerial spy intently. It was pursuing head-on, and so looked to be a massive round object suspended in the blue sky astern. By the look of the ship, its skin was constructed of a weave of gray titanosynfiber, a material that was once commonplace, now as rare as hen’s teeth. He doubted that the Mercantile Group could have manufactured such stuff on its own. Even Arles with its pre-war composites foundries could not produce such a quantity of synfiber. A stash of the material must have been found by one of the Group’s many traders, probably in a ruined factory town in the endless wastes of the Manitoba continent in the western hemisphere, or perhaps lying in a derelict cargo vehicle abandoned on some nameless road on the steppes of Central Gagarin.
The dirigible began to turn to port, and Truscott could now get a good view of the side of the craft. It was just a simple blimp, a giant bag filled with lifting gas, with a suspended gondola. On the tail of the airship was the unmistakable sword-emblem of Rochester. Truscott grimaced at the thought that Rochester had developed the wherewithal to build an airship, even though a primitive one. It was a sickening feeling. Lancaster had its own airships, and a half-dozen monoplane aircraft too, but Rochester was a bloodthirsty competitor, and any advancement by it brought out a sense of foreboding in him. Lancaster had held Rochester’s aggressive aristocracy at bay by being superior in both men and machines, but technical superiority was slipping slowly away from the New Marlborough Navy. Rochester’s ships had benefited over the years from technology transfer from its less bloodthirsty partners in the Mercantile Group, who would themselves cynically look the other way as Rochester hauled in the fruits of its conquests and piracy and sold them on. Truscott knew that it was only a matter of time before Rochester dropped the pretense of being a good member of the Group and made its bid for outright mastery. Then the other merchant city-states would regret the Faustian bargains they had made with that kingdom.
Maintaining a technical edge over Rochester, or anyone other state for that matter, was almost impossible over the long term. With technical skills in decline, it was more often the case that Lancaster’s technology was declining, sinking to meet with that of its enemies, rather than its enemies rising to catch up to it. There were so few places left that could produce the sophisticated materials that advanced ships and weaponry required. Even when the knowledge existed, the breakdown of the pre-Devastation economy, and with it the complicated supply chains that had held it together, made it impossible to keep much of New Marlborough’s best equipment operational. This was especially true of components that had come exclusively from off-world before the war. It galled Truscott that a simple fisheries patrol craft of the pre-attack years was filled with better technology and made of more durable materials than New Marlborough’s own “modern” ironclad cruisers. Then again, much galled Truscott, when he recalled the fading from memory of all that was good and great of the years before the Devastation.
Nearly ten centuries had passed since the first flight at Kitty Hawk, and the functioning aerocraft of New Marlborough were scarcely more advanced than the Wright Brothers’ Flyer that Truscott had seen at the Smithsonian on Earth. There once were, on this planet alone, any number, maybe hundreds of thousands, of highly trained pilots who could have driven a modern aerospace vehicle, whether an interplanetary shuttle, a gravitic orbiter, a suborbital pleasure boat, or a purely atmospheric craft. Flight had been a widespread skill, a hobby even, no more remarkable than any other. It was taken for granted.
Most of these men and women would have been slain within hours of the enemy’s first strike. What had happened to the engineers who had designed these craft, and oversaw the robotic factories that produced the gleaming vehicles themselves? They had died too, when their homes and offices were hit, and taken their knowledge with them. The automated factories that fabricated the aerocraft were also destroyed, as were the intelligent supercomputers on which the proprietary designs for these machines were maintained. If there had been design files on any surviving machines they had been hopelessly corrupted by the tremendous electromagnetic pulses that accompanied the explosions. So both the knowledge of spaceflight and the specialized equipment needed to build such craft were lost.
The list of forgotten sciences on New Marlborough was nearly endless. Doctors with certain cures for diseases, such as the few that still plagued humanity, were vaporized in an hour of fire. Cancer, typhus, cholera, measles, and influenza had all made determined comebacks in the decades since. His mother had perished in the attack, most likely hard at work in her operating room in Monterey when the missiles struck. Scientists with a true understanding of the fundamental physical forces of the universe were killed, their visions of the origin of the cosmos and how to harness the forces of it gone forever.
Apart from the men and women with proper technical training, there was the loss of culture that went along with the decay of technological civilization. Sometimes Truscott would recite from memory the plays of Shakespeare to his crewmen. He dared not take his own paper copy of the playwright’s complete works with him aboard ship, for fear that it, the last surviving book of its kind on New Marlborough, would be lost. It was priceless, and now held in trust by Lancaster Museum, a ramshackle edifice with a collection that was more depressing than inspiring to anyone who remembered the glory days of the Confederation. His sailors sat with rapt fascination as he told them the stories of Macbeth, and Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet, and he found it sadly ironic that his men could relate more to the world of sixteenth-century Earth, as described by Shakespeare, so remote in time though it was, with its flashing swords and horses and kings, than to the world of New Marlborough less than a century past.
Truscott wondered, nearly every day, what the fate of the other worlds of the Confederation had been. In the nine decades since the attack, not a single starship from one of the others had arrived in orbit above New Marlborough. Had the damage been so extensive, everywhere? He could only surmise that it had been just as bad, if not worse. In the old days, at least one ship from distant Earth arrived every week. New Marlborough was not a backwater, but it was not the foremost of Confederation worlds either. Its contact with the others was frequent, and unremarkable.
Then the enemy came and all contact was lost with the other planets. A handful of starships based on-world returned to New Marlborough. They had been in transit when the attack came, and had survived. A few crews bravely declared that they would set out for the nearest worlds, New Brazil, Beethoven, New Senegal, or even Earth. None were ever heard from again. Others decided that they would strike out for a new world of their own, and settle there, so far away from the Confederation that the enemy would never look for them. They were never heard from again, either.
What they had taken with them, unfortunately, apart from their irreplaceable ships, was their understanding of space travel. It had been a wasteful and shortsighted indulgence of New Marlborough’s wobbly government to let them leave, a decision which still rankled Truscott. But the emotions of the first months after the Devastation were so passionate that it had been hard to refuse them. Unfettered freedom was an unchallengeable right in those days, and the words of those who would have held the spacefarers back seemed narrow at the time, and selfish. Truscott shook his head. New Marlborough’s authorities, such as they were, should have denied them permission anyway. He supposed that in the aftermath, New Marlborough did not truly have the wherewithal to make the starship crews obey. The spacers were a law unto themselves. Still, it was another unmitigated loss.
Twenty years after the last ships had departed, without any word of their fates, the Lancaster government, more stable now, but struggling with the failure of so much complicated technology, and fighting wars with other quasi-states that had sprung up amidst the wreckage of New Marlborough, sent out a powerful signal from its one functional, high-power radio transmitter. The machine promptly broke afterwards and could not be fixed. The message was directed at Earth, and, since it was limited to the speed of light, it would take many years to reach humanity’s homeworld. That meant that if anyone was left on Earth to receive it, and could send an answer back in the same manner, it would take centuries at the minimum to learn of the home planet’s survival.
As each year passed, Truscott inured himself ever more to the end of human civilization as he had known it. There was no going back, he knew. It did not truly matter if Earth ever sent back an answer. Whatever came next, whatever culture rose from the ashes of New Marlborough, would not be what he had known in his youth. Just as the Roman Empire was never resurrected, but instead new states had developed out its ruins, so too would new things emerge from the dark age in which New Marlborough now found itself.
Truscott thought of the stories that his father had told him of the medieval monks in the scriptoria of their monasteries, copying day after day the remaining works of the Greeks and Romans. The survival of so much ancient learning had depended upon the endless toil of those laboring monks, who mixed their copying with their prayers.
If anything lasting, anything hopeful, was to come from the mess in which New Marlborough found itself, then it would need power, and lots of it. His father had understood energy, and what produced it in vast amounts. He had designed fusion reactors for a shipbuilding concern, Barossa Yards, Inc., and had been aboard the company’s orbital factory when it was destroyed. His father had died, along with all of his compatriots, and their knowledge of fusion power had gone with them. In the decades since, first petroleum-based fuels were employed, until the crude refineries needed to make fuels from the black liquid had decayed, and their output proved unreliable. New Marlborough had then turned to coal. It was abundant on-world, just as it had been on Earth. Hundreds of millions of years before humans made planetfall, New Marlborough had experienced a period of wild vegetal growth, which had then decayed, and over long eons, become a black, burnable rock. It was now the basis for what little electrical power was produced on the wounded planet.
Truscott could not believe his ears when his superiors had announced to him that coal would soon power the greater part of new construction for the fleet. Never in his youth had he used a technology that required combustion of any sort in order to work. He had wept that evening, not so much because of the coal itself, but of what it represented – all that had been lost and destroyed, his mother, his father, and his fiancee, none of whom he would ever see again.
Truscott thought of his crew. Apart from Wang, they were children of the time after the Devastation. Sometimes he would tell stories of his life before, of his childhood, when he had traveled among the stars. The young men listened to him intently, and they believed what he told them, but he could tell that they had difficulty relating to his stories. To them they were like the legendary tales of some medieval bard, filled with fanciful creatures and larger-than-life characters, but not to be taken too seriously. Nothing in their experience had been anything like what Truscott spoke about with them. How could he make them understand, anyway? Ensign Lopez had never known a world in which limbs and organs could be regrown in a nutrient biobottle. Lieutenant Wilson had never seen a city of millions lit by the power of a nuclear generator the size of a ship’s boiler. They were astounded by talk of intelligent robots, which were now extreme rarities found only at High Command and in some fortunate medical facilities. He had tried to explain to them concepts such as tourism, and vacations, and amusement parks, but such matters were so far from their own understanding of life that he had given up.
That made the Warsong’s current cargo all the more precious. It was a fully functional nuclear fusion reactor. Somehow, by some miracle, it had survived the Devastation, and after ninety years in a warehouse on the main island of the Lincoln Archipelago, was now sitting in the hold of Truscott’s ship.
Such a valuable item should have been acquired by a full fleet of the New Marlborough Navy, but the brass in Osaka wanted it picked up yesterday, and as the Warsong was the closest ship to the Archipelago when the decision was made, it had received the mission to retrieve it. All of his other orders were immediately rescinded, and the new mission was given top priority. Anyone and anything was expendable in order to return the reactor to Osaka.
The reactor had been left in a remote warehouse far from the Lincoln spaceport loading dock at some time just prior to the attack. It had escaped destruction because of this distance. The warehouse had been raided by bandits and pirates that made the Lincoln islands their lair, but the reactor itself had been placed in a magnetically-sealed, lock-coded crate, which had defied the attentions of anyone from getting a look inside. So after what must have seemed more trouble than it was worth, the miscreants who had daubed the outside of the crate with their ugly graffiti and other vulgarities left the crate alone. Lancaster’s technicians, on the other hand, would have the ability to crack the locking codes, given enough time.
A plan began to form in Truscott’s mind. He called to the helm. “Ensign Sakai, continue on this heading.”
Truscott then turned to Wang. “XO,” he said softly. “I’m going to need your countersignature.”
Wang’s eyes widened in surprise. “My signature?” Aboard ship a captain’s word was law. Truscott didn’t need Wang’s or anyone else’s permission to do anything. Except for just one thing. Comprehension slowly dawned on Wang’s face. “You think it is necessary?”
“Very much, Casimir,” Truscott said. “It is too high for ack-ack, and if we don’t get rid of it soon we will never avoid Rochester’s other ships.”
“Let’s do it, then.”
“Lieutenant Wilson, you have the conn.”
Truscott and Wang descended to the hold of ship. Truscott felt the reassuring thrum beneath his feet of the boilers in the engine room as their vibration was transferred along the Warsong’s structural timbers. He removed a key from his pocket and inserted it into the lock on the plasteel door, and then twisted it counterclockwise. A small click told that the door was open, and both men went inside. Within this room was kept the ship’s complement of munitions and gunpowder. A plasteel cocoon surrounded the weapons on all sides, shielding them from fire and shell splinters. The two walked to the back of the chamber, and Truscott and Wang together lifted a long black-gray plastic crate from the floor and placed it atop a box of hand grenades. Truscott removed a piece of paper from a pouch on the side of the crate and carefully unfolded it.
“Navy procedure says I have to believe that the usage of this weapon is more likely than not to be the only effective and sufficient means of accomplishing this ship’s mission,” Truscott said. “I do so believe that.”
“I concur with your assessment of tactical necessity,” Wang replied. Truscott then produced a pen from his pocket and signed his name on the paper. He turned the document around and advanced it to Wang, along with his pen. Wang signed his name to the left of that of his captain.
The New Marlborough Navy’ regulations called for any use of advanced weaponry, that is, the fabulous and irreplaceable weapons left over from the pre-Devastation period, or the few near-equivalents that it had rigged afterwards, to be signed for by the captain and then countersigned by his executive officer. The decision to use such a weapon always rested with the captain, but his second-in-command must always approve of it. In practice, there was little chance that the two highest-ranking officers would disagree, but it did add a level of caution to the use of New Marlborough’s most valuable warshots.
Truscott undid the clasps on the side of the crate, and lifted the top. Inside, sealed within a gray plastic bag, was a long cylinder. “Use my knife, Johan,” Wang said as handed his folding knife to him. Truscott cut an opening across the length of the bag, revealing a pure white missile approximately two meters long. Wang whistled softly. “They don’t make them like they used to.”
The MRAMM-24, or Medium-Range Autonomous Multipurpose Missile Model Number 24, was an artificially-intelligent, fire-and-forget weapon with a five-hundred kilometer range and a twenty-five kilogram magnapex warhead. Manufactured on New Marlborough by the Rigel Corporation in 2775, just five years before the attack, it was powerful enough to vaporize a ship such as the Warsong, or even a smaller ironclad like the one that even now hunted it across the Tethys. That ship, at least, could be engaged and destroyed by the Warsong’s smoothbores. Nothing else aboard the frigate, however, could touch that hovering blimp. It was overkill, certainly, but with the blimp tracking them they would never escape the attentions of Rochester’s other prowling vessels.
Truscott had not been a military man before the Devastation. As a university student, he had spent most of his time pursuing the meaningless activities that had been considered a student’s prerogative during the fat years of that lost age. He joined the Navy after the Devastation, when the importance of so many things changed, and skills that had been taken for granted, or even denigrated, such as being able to repair an engine, or grow food, or sew clothes, became critical to the survival of the miserable remnant of humanity in the wake of the enemy’s strike.
He had been in numerous battles with the foes of Lancaster, and on three previous occasions had required the use of similar armaments. The younger crewmen were wary of approaching these devices, mainly because, unlike nearly every other machine that they encountered in their lives, these could talk.
The MRAMM-24 was intelligent enough to carry on a limited conversation with a human concerning its own tactical employment, but not so smart that it might refuse to carry out a mission that would with certainty result in its own destruction. Truscott supposed that the absence of any evolutionarily-derived, biologically-based fear mechanisms meant that the missile did not develop a troublesome aversion to its own extinction. All the better, he reasoned, since the missile’s operational life-span upon activation would be no more that two minutes.
Truscott and Wang carried the missile crate up from the hold and placed it on the stern of the Warsong. In pre-Devastation times the weapon would have been launched from a sealed tube embedded within a starship’s hull. It had been conceived as an anti-starfighter weapon, and was considered in its time to be very effective, even though Truscott realized with a bitter irony, it had rarely been used in the years of general peace before the dark days came.
The missile was placed in a semicircular aluminum gutter with wide-set legs. Each leg was nailed quickly to the wooden deck planks, as was the rear of the tube. Truscott opened the crate and he and Wang lifted the missile out, and then carefully rested it in the gutter. Several of the sailors watched as the two officers wrestled the missile to its perch. Had this been a barrel of coal, he would have had the deckhands carry the weight, but this was classified as a strategic weapon of New Marlborough, and he could not allow the superstitious youngsters who rigged the sails to touch the missile.
Truscott considered Wang, the man whom he had known longer than any other in his life. Wang had been an art student in his early days. Truscott had been friendly with him during their time at university, but they had not been close. Afterwards, when they had met in a refugee camp outside Osaka, looking for word of their loved ones, they had become brothers in grief. Wang was the only man whom Truscott knew who remembered all of the names of the greatest artists of Earth, and could explain the difference between the style of the High Renaissance and Mannerism with any degree of cogency. After the attack, Truscott had paid to have Wang’s monograph on French impressionism published by Osaka University’s own press. Now he was an expert in naval gunnery, and one of the best officers in the fleet.
Wang’s usefulness to Lancaster was not limited to his knowledge of the history of art or shipborne artillery. He was one of the few men to survive the attack who knew how to make concrete, since he had paid for his schooling by spending his summers working with a construction firm in the southern polar region. Once the method of making of concrete had been known all across the Roman world on Earth, but knowledge of it had been lost during the ensuing Dark Age. Such a useful material, a stone that could be poured and molded to one’s desire, and yet that technology had been lost for more than a thousand years.
Civilization itself was partially responsible for its loss, Truscott realized. Not entirely so, since the invading barbarians themselves had been the proximate cause of the deterioration of civilized life in Europe. No, civilization was responsible in another way. Civilization was too specialized, too fragile. By promoting specialization among people, city dwellers could attain greater heights than any band of primitive hunters. Each man and woman in a town specialized in a particular craft or service, and traded their skills for things that they could not make for themselves, but which others could. So a blacksmith would trade his iron wares to the shoemaker for shoes, and the fletcher would trade his arrows in return for money so that he could buy food from a farmer. A blacksmith could not make shoes, and the fletcher could not grow his own food, but through their interdependence with others in the town they could focus on their specialties, and cities grew and prospered.
Therein was a potentially fatal flaw. What happened if the fletcher died, and someone had need for arrows? In normal conditions, there would always be someone else who had the requisite skill. However, in extraordinarily bad times, such skills could be lost, especially if the knowledge they were based upon had been known to only a few. The making of concrete, Truscott inferred, had been one such skill. Immensely useful to be sure, but, like all such things, the technique had been the province of a very small group. When Rome ended, then demand for that product also ended, and fathers had little reason to pass the knowledge along to their sons. The castles and cathedrals of medieval Europe built in the ensuing millennium, and found everywhere on that continent, had thus been made of carefully shaped stone.
Things were no different during the great latter days on New Marlborough. So much of the things that Truscott had taken for granted – the stardrives, gravitics, the cheap and abundant power, the medical miracles that staved off aging and death for centuries – he could not have done or made them for himself. Some of them still came all the way from Earth. The best antimatter containment units in the Confederation were manufactured in Nairobi, Kenya, and nearly every ship engine made on New Marlborough before the Devastation had one of these installed. No one had worried what would happen if the link with Earth was severed. Modern spacefaring civilization had been no different, on a fundamental level, than the low-tech iron age world of Rome, and no less vulnerable to collapse if a severe disruption occurred.
Wang had shook his head when Truscott had broached his ideas. “The Romans were not pounded into atoms by antimatter warheads,” he had reminded his captain gently.
Truscott had agreed, but that was not truly important. What mattered was that a cut of the threads that tied all together resulted in a continuing disaster that extended in time long after the event that precipitated the collapse in the first place was long over. Lancaster had proven to be no different, and the years since the attack had seen a slow but very real decline in every area, even though the most glaring wounds of the attack had been more or less repaired. Lancaster had emerged from the war relatively unscathed, with the bulk of its scattered agricultural population surviving the attack, and that was why it had become the leading nation-state on New Marlborough after the Devastation. Yet it had been unable to halt the continued deterioration of its own advanced technology base. Lancaster had itself been too dependent on outsiders for the maintenance of its sophisticated machines.
Truscott inserted a thin plug into the side of the missile and quickly entered a set of activation codes. Along with these codes came detailed operational information concerning the missile’s target, how to identify enemy vehicles, and how to distinguish them from friendly forces. Once digested, the missile would be a loyal weapon of the New Marlborough Navy. A low buzz, followed by a slightly deeper pitched hum, heralded the wakefulness of the artificial mind within the missile.
“This MRAMM-24 unit has identified a lighter-than-atmosphere aerial vehicle directly ahead of this unit at 2,743 meters altitude. Please confirm hostility of same.”
Wang let out a small laugh. “That was quick. I suppose you get what you pay for.”
Truscott nodded, and said to the missile, “The target is a hostile dirigible in the employ of an enemy. Your mission is to engage and destroy the target forthwith.”
“Instructions are understood,” the MRAMM-24 said tonelessly. There was a pause of two seconds. “I am not embedded within a launch silo,” the missile noted, “or mounted upon a rotating launch arm. Please explain.”
“We do not have a proper launch silo for you, or a rotating launch arm,” Truscott answered sheepishly. “You are mounted upon a launch platform that has been affixed to the deck of this ship at a thirty-five degree angle.”
“Thirty-six point eight,” the missile corrected.
“Very well then,” Truscott agreed, as Wang stifled a laugh.
“It will be necessary for me to engage my engine at full burn because I lack either a booster unit or an electromagnetic launch accelerator. I recommend that you remove flammable debris from the surface of this vessel and command any crewmen to go below deck.”
“Understood. Proceed to engage the target in sixty seconds.”
“Command noted and logged.”
Truscott immediately issued a general order over the shipwide intercom system for every hand to go below deck. He need not have worried that his men would be slow to comply. Once the missile had been carried above, every sailor had seen the strange speaking weapon conversing with the captain, and gratefully scrambled to be gone from the deck when his order was given.
Once below, within the cramped confines of the bridge, Truscott and Wang stood watching the dusty and chipped battlescreen above their heads. The red symbol of the Rochester blimp was already turning to the north, away from the Warsong, which was a small blue symbol in the middle of the screen. The dirigible almost certainly carried its own telescope of some sort to keep a watch on the Warsong. It must have seen the missile being erected on the stern of the frigate, and once it realized the danger it was in, turned tail.
It would not matter. The MRAMM-24 was capable of sustained Mach 20 speed over hundreds of kilometers. The advantage of the blimp – its ability to loiter lazily over a target for an extended period – was also its weakness. It was achingly slow, and had no way to escape this missile.
The MRAMM-24 launched from the deck above with a loud whoosh, and the weapon soared into the sky, leaving behind a wave of superheated air that Truscott felt even inside the bridge. The missile rapidly climbed upward to the altitude of the blimp and circled the Rochester air vehicle once at a distance of ten kilometers. It made a brief move toward the blimp, but then veered away just seconds before impact. The missile then returned to its circular orbit.
Truscott groaned inwardly. Malfunctions of the old missiles were not unheard of in the Navy. It was a risk that had to be taken. But he was sure that the missile had been in good condition. The self-diagnostic program run by the missile upon awakening would have – should have – alerted him to any problem.
“It is nearly a hundred years old,” Wang consoled.
Moments later a disembodied voice intruded upon the gloom in the bridge. It was muffled and choppy with static. “Captain – this signal, I think it is from the missile,” radio operator Ensign Saburo Nkrumah called out.
“The missile is trying to talk to us over the radio, Captain,” Nkrumah said. “It is identifying itself!”
Instantly, the static cleared, and the toneless voice of the missile could be heard perfectly. “This is the MRAMM-24 contacting the NMS Warsong, please respond.” Truscott exchanged a weary glance with Wang. “This is Captain Truscott, over.”
“Greetings, Captain. I expect that you are wondering why I have not engaged the target as instructed.”
“It had crossed my mind.”
“During my sensor sweep of the surrounding battlespace, I detected a surface vessel bearing south on a following course with your vessel. My sensors indicated that this was an enemy vessel too. Shall I engage and destroy that vessel as well?”
Truscott was stunned quiet for several moments. “Can you do that?” he asked finally.
“Yes, Captain. The enemy dirigible is a crude lighter-than-atmosphere vehicle filled with highly flammable hydrogen gas. Presumably, the enemy believes that it has protected against a fire hazard by compartmentalizing the gas within twenty-three bladders made of titanosynfiber, but this will be no protection against my high velocity.”
“Do you mean to ram it?”
“Yes, Captain. The extreme heat of my exhaust will be more than enough to ignite the hydrogen within. Afterwards, I will engage the enemy surface ship with my warhead.”
“Won’t the impact with the blimp cause your warhead to detonate?”
“No, Captain. I will merely disengage the fuse until after I have destroyed the blimp, and then reengage it afterwards.” There was a distinct sense of satisfaction in the MRAMM-24’s voice.
Truscott considered the missile’s suggestion. There was nothing to lose and everything to gain. “You have my permission to alter the original mission plan in accordance with your own recommendation.”
“Understood, Captain. Noted and logged.”
The missile immediately made a soaring dive at the blimp, and Truscott watched the battlescreen as the green symbol of the missile intersected with the red of the dirigible. On the television beside it, the Rochester airship exploded in a tremendous fireball that was visible even without the aid of a telescope. Within just seconds, the fire was gone, all the hydrogen having been consumed.
The missile then turned, and streaked the seventy kilometers to the enemy ironclad in under fifty seconds. Both the green symbol of the missile and the red symbol of the ironclad blinked and then disappeared. Both threats had been annihilated by the same weapon.
“As you said, Casimir, you get what you pay for,” Truscott grinned.
Darkness came, a night lit by only a sliver of the bright moon Galileo. Truscott guessed that the blimp would have kept Rochester informed of its southward progress, which he hoped would make it appear that the Warsong was intending to pass south of the island continent of Carpathia. Truscott instead ordered the helmsman to reverse course, and the ship was soon headed north once more toward the Strait of Fulbright.
Truscott sat down in his command chair. His mind drifted again, this time to his fiancee, long since gone. Her name was Diana. He had met her at Osaka University, and had fallen in love with her the first time he saw her. She was studying to be a doctor, specializing in restorative cardiac bioimplants. He did not pretend to understand what she was learning. He only knew that she was much smarter than was he. She had helped to cure him somewhat of the drift that had taken hold of his life when he entered university, a dreamy young man with ideals but no direction.
He had taken her to Earth for a vacation one summer, when classes were out. He remembered how his knees nearly buckled as they stood atop the Eiffel Tower, the bright lights of Paris sparkling in the night, as he produced the ring. Her face lit up, and she smiled at him, a vision that he had never forgotten.
They were to have married upon graduation. Then the war came. Diana lived with her family in Sao Paolo, on Manitoba, which had borne the brunt of the attack. She was there when the missiles fell.
He kept the small and tattered running shoes that she had left at his dormitory room in Osaka, as well as her hairbrush, and her small briefcase that she used to carry her papers. He had come so close marrying her, making her his wife, and all that he had left of her was an assortment of things that, had she survived, she might have tossed into the trash when she no longer wanted them. Now, for Truscott, they were his most valued possessions.
Afterwards, when years had passed, he had thought again about marrying. Life had regained a kind of stability once Lancaster was back on its feet. But he had by then taken a position in the Navy, and that made it hard to meet women. Time wore on, and things changed. He was still young enough to become a father, and many women liked him, but they were not Diana. More years rolled on, and by then he had become a relic of the past, of the time before, and all of his references, the way he looked at the world, his manner of thinking, were foreign to the women he now met, who were raised after the Devastation. There would be no one else for him, not now.
“Captain,” Ensign Nkrumah called out. “We are getting an encrypted priority message from Command.”
Truscott stirred from his reverie. “What does it say?”
“The message is still decoding,” Nkrumah said. The logic units aboard the Warsong, like most of its other equipment, were not on a par with pre-war sets. A wooden-walled screw frigate was low on the list for the installation of the best of the Navy’s remaining electronics. Nonetheless, Truscott regarded anything other than instantaneous as unbearably slow.
“Three ships, Captain, the Battle Cry, the Calypso, and the Trident are waiting to meet us in the Strait and escort us through, all the way back to Osaka.”
“That is good news, Ensign.” Truscott sighed in relief. The waiting ships were steam-powered ironclads, big enough to see off any Rochester threat. The Warsong might just make it home with its cargo. There might be a brighter future after all.
The night passed uneventfully, and by morning, the Strait of Fulbright was just an hour away. Truscott rose from his cot in his cabin and pulled on his uniform, a pair of tan trousers, matching shirt, and a dark blue cap. He had just entered the bridge when Ensign Lopez identified a passive sonar contact.
“Tell me you are joking, Mr. Lopez.” There was never anything of note to be found on the sonar set. The Navy didn’t even bother to have a dedicated sonar operator aboard its ships. The only subsurface noises came from New Marlborough’s native biological species, and the computer routinely disregarded them.
Lopez slipped a pair of earphones on his head. “It is mechanical, Captain!” Two screws, coming towards us fast from directly starboard!”
“Helm!” Truscott shouted. “Hard to starboard! Full speed.”
The Warsong turned quickly, and now headed south-southwest. “They’re torpedoes, Captain!” Lopez called out.
Above deck, crewmen watched helplessly as the white tracks approached the frigate. The first torpedo missed the Warsong by ten meters. The second came much closer, and rode through the ship’s wake once it had passed.
“All hands, battlestations!” Truscott said through the intercom. He then voiced to Wang. “XO, it looks like Rochester has deployed a submarine. Get your gun crews ready, as well as the hedgehog mortars.”
“That can’t be,” Wang said.
“It is, old friend. Our sonar picks it up at a depth of twenty meters. It likely dove as soon as it let loose with the torpedoes.”
“If you can get me over its position I can force it to stay down,” Wang promised.
“I’m taking you there now.”
“The hedgehog will take care of it if you can get close.”
Truscott’s mind spun. Rochester must have spent a fortune putting together a submarine. How had Lancaster’s intelligence service missed it? There was no question that his mission had been compromised. There was no possibility that he would have run into enemy vehicles on the sea, in the air, and now below the sea unless Rochester knew what his ship was carrying and were moving at all costs to stop him.
For all its expense, the sub couldn’t be especially sophisticated. Likely, the thing ran on diesel fuel backed up by a set of lead-acid batteries, and carried a complement of straight-running torpedoes. The Warsong was lucky that it had enough warning to turn into the torpedoes, offering only a small target for the weapons. If the Rochester captain had more sense he would have come much closer, and delivered a full spread against the frigate. Still, Truscott was impressed. A submarine was a gamechanger on New Marlborough.
“How are the hedgehog mortars, XO?”
“Loaded and awaiting orders to fire, Captain,” Wang replied.
“I am going above to take a look. Wilson, take the conn.”
The day was hazy, and visibility poor. Truscott took out his pair of binoculars. A sailor in the crow’s nest above the mainmast called down to him. “Periscope spotted! Two points off the starboard bow, Captain!”
The Rochester sub was circling for another attack at the Warsong’s starboard side.
Truscott turned and saw that Wang had the mortars prepped and ready to fire. “Casimir, did you copy that?”
“Aye, Captain. Two points. Full spread.”
“Aye, Captain.” Five mortar bombs were hurled from the Warsong’s heaving deck. It was an old method of hunting submarines. If you could not see your target clearly, and any submarine commander worthy of his boat would do his utmost to submerge and hide from a surface ship, the best way to attack it was to launch bombs down upon it in a pattern. The hedgehog mortars sent out five large bombs in a checkerboard arrangement, making it hard for a submarine to escape. Submarines were very slow underwater, since their engines could not obtain oxygen from the atmosphere, and so had to rely upon weak batteries for power.
Ensign Lopez called on the intercom from the bridge. “No hits, Captain. This thing is noisy, and moving fast! Eight points off the starboard beam!”
That was fast.
“Two torpedoes in the water!” shouted Lopez.
“Hard to starboard!”
The Warsong lurched once more as it turned hard to the right, into the direction from which the torpedoes had been launched. The first of the torpedoes chugged straight past the Warsong’s port side, but the second struck it squarely in the bow, and embedded itself in a tangle of torn iron plates and wooden timbers. It did not explode.
“A dud, Captain!” Lopez cried out in relief. “It was a dud!”
A dud, yes, but for how long? Rochester’s munitions were often of poor quality, but they rarely failed to explode entirely. The detonator in its nose might have been crushed by the impact, but here was no assurance that the torpedo had not armed itself during its run. The warhead might go off any moment.
The submarine had again surfaced to fire. It could not carry out an attack while submerged. It would be a fatal mistake.
“XO,” Truscott voiced. “One point to port. Present port side to target.”
Wang loosed another volley of mortar bombs at the sub. One struck the enemy boat directly behind the conning tower, sending up a sheet of blue-yellow flame. Truscott saw a handful of men on the sub scrambling to man the sub’s deck-mounted twenty millimeter gun. They began to pump dozens of rounds into the Warsong’s hull, sending sprays of deadly splinters skittering across the deck. There were screams as crewmen were struck.
“Fire again, Commander. Full broadside, too.”
Wang ordered another volley from the mortars, all of which missed the sub completely. The smoothbore cannon of the gundeck then fired, and at least two shots hit the sub aft of its conning tower.
A massive explosion rocked the Warsong as the submarine evaporated in a shower of superheated metal. The remains of Rochester craft burned brightly, and then sank beneath the waves.
Truscott turned to the mortars. Several men were down, including Wang. Truscott ran to his side. A jagged wooden splinter half a meter in length protruded from Wang’s abdomen.
“Casimir!” Truscott knelt down beside his old friend, who was propped by a gunner’s mate against the side of a mortar barrel. “We’ll carry you below to sick bay.” He turned to the crewmen around him. “Give me a hand.”
Wang smiled weakly. “Not this time, Johan. I don’t think I am going anywhere.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“I can feel it, Johan. There’s a tree in my gut.” Wang chuckled, and then stopped abruptly when the pain grew too great. “Listen to me! There’s a torpedo stuck in the ship’s hull. It could blow at any time. You have to dump the reactor overboard. Don’t let it be destroyed. Don’t let it fall into enemy hands.”
“The squadron will be here in under an hour,” Truscott protested.
Wang weakly swung his chin side to side in disagreement. “You don’t know what else is out there. The reactor is in a magnetically-sealed crate. It’s too big for the ship’s boats, too heavy,” he breathed raggedly. “It can withstand the pressure of the deep. It is watertight. But if the torpedo explodes, it might wreck the reactor. Put it out of reach.”
“But we’ll never find it again!”
“You will. One day, Lancaster will be able to bring it back up.” Wang pointed to his neck. “You know what to do.”
Wang’s eyes closed, and his head sagged slightly to the side.
Truscott grimly withdrew a small knife from his pocket. It was the same one that Wang had given him just the day before. He cut a small incision in Wang’s neck, just beside his larynx. Blood poured out, leaving a spreading crimson stain on the collar of Wang’s tan uniform. Truscott withdrew a small disc from the dead man’s neck. “This is – was – Commander Wang’s voicecomm,” Truscott said to the stunned crewmen beside him. The tiny device could send out a secure, coded signal over several kilometers. It made it possible to locate any person who carried one, as long as you had the heavily-encrypted keycode. “Get me some marine glue,” Truscott said.
Truscott descended into the ship’s hold. The nose of the Rochester torpedo poked nearly all the way through the Warsong’s hull, just above the waterline, only a half-dozen yards from the reactor. A high-pitched whirring indicated that the motor had not died, not entirely, and was still trying to push itself deeper into the ship. A short series of clicks followed at regular intervals. That was the torpedo’s secondary detonator, at the rear of the weapon, attempting to arm itself. There was not much time. The reactor crate could survive a re-entry burn, or the titanic pressures of the deep ocean, but not an explosion. Truscott placed a tiny spot of glue on the reverse of the voicecomm, and then set it against the side of the reactor’s crate. In less than a minute, the bond would be iron-hard.
He stepped back as the wide cargo doors in the deck above swung open. Crewmen scurried to secure the crate with hooks, and then slowly winched it from the hold. Truscott stood atop the crate as it rose to level of the deck. He stepped off. “Swing it over.”
The winch pivoted on its mount, and the reactor hung suspended over the waves for several seconds. “Release it.”
The crate splashed into the water, and sank quickly beneath. “Record our position, Ensign Lopez.”
“Aye, Captain. Position logged.”
“All hands, abandon ship.”
The Warsong exploded fifteen minutes later. The lifeboats were safely out of range when the torpedo finally detonated, but a light shower of splinters still fell on the men huddled in them. The Battle Cry arrived within an hour, and picked up the grateful crew.
Captain Scaliger of the Battle Cry agreed with Truscott’s decision to put the reactor out of reach. The risk of its destruction by the torpedo was too great to run. One day, Scaliger assured, Lancaster’s navy would raise the reactor from the bottom. Like Truscott, he was troubled that the secrecy of the mission had apparently been compromised. He promised that he would relay Truscott’s suspicions to the Navy’s Command immediately.
Truscott went below to a small bunk that Scaliger had set aside for him in the Battle Cry’s guest cabin. He lay down on the cot, and stared at the dull gray ceiling. He wondered what Rome was like now. Had the Eternal City survived the war? Was it truly eternal? He doubted that. Rome had a population of one hundred million back in the late twenty-eighth century. The enemy would never have spared it. He thought of the time that his father had taken him there, as they stood before the Trevi Fountain, that masterpiece of hydraulic sculpture. His father had him stand with his back to it, and toss a small coin into the gurgling waters behind.
“That means that one day you will return to Rome, Johan,” his father had said. “Maybe one day you will take your own son.”
Truscott nodded eagerly at his father, who smiled at him as he mussed his son’s hair. “You will never forget Rome,” his father promised. Afterwards they purchased gelato. He remembered sitting in the piazza and swallowing bite after bite of the delicious chocolate dessert. From his current vantage point in time it had been a moment of miracle. Had the Trevi Fountain survived? It was a pile of marble dust most likely. Truscott would never forget Rome, but there was no going back. He would tell his stories to his men, to all who would listen, of his own life, of the brave Casimir Wang, of Rome, of Shakespeare, and of the Warsong, but all memories faded over time, and they too would all eventually be forgotten.
Captain Johan Truscott of the steam frigate NMS Warsong is on a desperate mission to bring home a priceless technological relic that could change the face of his ruined world forever. In his way are crafty pirates that infest the seas of the war-torn world of New Marlborough. Can he make it safely back to port with his cargo or will the Warsong fall victim to enemy guns? Across Alien Seas is a naval tale that is part science fiction, part old-fashioned nautical adventure, with a dash of dystopian steampunk thrown in for good measure.