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by Marc De Santis
The screw 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 murmured. “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 said sagely.
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 juvenation 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 a young man. 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 offplanet, 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 now 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
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 an
simmering volcano. The Warsong was beautiful, but how could she be called
Truscott sighed as he mentally keyed the voicecomm, subdermallyimplanted on his larynx, to call his executive officer and gunnery commander, who
was overseeing the large cannon on the gundeck below. “How are the guns,
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 really,
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
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 really, that Europe
regained the technical and economic sophistication that it had possessed under the
The imagery of the ruined portions of the Eternal City, 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 really, 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
“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 head on a course to intercept us, moving fast.” Lopez turned his head to
face Truscott. “Near the Strait, Captain.”
Truscott muttered angrily. “I didn’t think we had been spotted.” 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 the 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
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, at least 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
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 population 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,”
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 a dozen 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 the 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
“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 even one-quarter 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 callisthenics. 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, even in waterborne shipping, was slipping slowly away from
the New Marlborough Navy. Rochester’s ships had benefitted 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 citystates would regret the Faustian bargains they had made with that kingdom.
Maintaining a technical edge on 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
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, asleep in their homes waiting for morning to arrive. 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 science 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. Its contact with the others was frequent, and
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
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. It was directed at Earth, and, since it was
limited to the speed of light, 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 decades 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, at least 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 had never been 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 now 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 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
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 structure 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 otherwise 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
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 preDevastation 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-incommand 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
three-hundred-thousand 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.
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.
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, hormonally-charged 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 launch 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 hands of the
youngsters who rigged the sails to touch it.
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. It 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 focused on 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 was 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 to him on a
bygone day. “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
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 missiles 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
“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
Wang let out a small laugh. “That was quick. I suppose you get what you
Truscott nodded, and said to the missile, “The target is a hostile dirigible in
the employ of an enemy. Your command is to engage and destroy the target
“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 guffaw.
“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.
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 thousands 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
Truscott exchanged a weary glance with Wang. “This is Captain Truscott,
I expect that you are wondering why I have not
engaged the target as instructed.”
“It had crossed my mind,” Truscott deadpanned.
“During my sensor sweep of the surrounding battlespace,” the missile
continued, “I detected a surface vessel bearing south on a following course with
your vessel. My sensors indicated that this is 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
“Yes, Captain. The enemy dirigible is a simple 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
“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 at the elegance of its tactical solution.
Truscott considered the weapon’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 MRAMM-24 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. Fuel was critical now, and going the long way
south around Carpathia would see the Warsong run out of coal before it ever came
within a thousand kilometers of Osaka. It would have still been able to move
under sail, but it would have leave the frigate at a severe disadvantage if it ran into
anything that did not rely upon the wind for movement. That was an unacceptable
Truscott sat down in his command chair. His mind drifted again, this time to
his fiancee, long since lost. 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 high
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 younger 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
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
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 a dozen yards. 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 gasped.
“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
“I’m taking your 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's fleet knew what his ship was carrying and was 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 them, 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, and
horrified. 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 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
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.”
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 Nkrumah 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 had
likely been crushed by the impact. There 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
“Don’t talk like that.”
“I can feel it, Johan. There’s a log 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