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PRINCE OF OUTCASTS

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER FIVE:

 

Pacific Ocean
Bearing south-southwest
September 2nd/Haochizuki 26th
Change Year 46/Shōhei 1/2044 A.D.

 

“Hunnhh!

John grunted as he swayed up the companionway to the quarterdeck in the thick darkness. The wind hit him as he came over the break; so did the rain that hadn’t stopped much since they’d left Topanga. The awkward weight of the forty-pound piece of steel in a rope sling over his back wasn’t helping either, and of course the fact that the Tarshish Queen was at forty degrees going up and forty degrees going down as she surged over the waves.

At increasing speed as she emerged from each trough and the wind hit her, then hesitating for a long unpleasant moment on the crest with foam boiling around her, then nosing down for the long swoop with huge rooster-tails of spray to either side and rolling and pitching as she did, then slowing a bit at the bottom, then the whole thing over again...

Disassembling tons of catapult in darkness on a violently pitching deck with waves washing over the side at unpredictable intervals, when not one part down to the smallest screw could be lost, and then carrying the whole thing from the bow a hundred and fifty feet to the stern...

“Here we go, Your Highness,” Fayard said. “That’s the right-hand mainspring anchor plate link panel.”

Two of the crossbowmen took the weight off his back and John stepped aside to get out of the way; all the Protector’s Guard were cross-trained on catapults, enough to be useful in this immensely complex and demanding task. Captain Ishikawa was next, with a big chunk of steel gearing over his back.

“Crever, vell... verry clever,” he gasped as the men took it, almost giggling as he said it.

His grinning face was underlit by the small deadlight lantern hung beneath the tarpaulin that made a sort of improvised tent over the starboard part of the Queen’s fantail aft of the wheel and binnacle. Feldman was crouched there with several of his sailors, mostly the crew-captains of the catapults. There was a low muttering among them, a clink of tools on metal that carried even over the moaning hum of the storm in the rigging and the white roar of water. Someone handed John a flask and he drank; it was spiced rum, and powerful. Sweet fire burned its way down to his belly, and pushed back the chill in his hands and the lingering pain of his bruises.

Feldman sank back. “There; just go over the bolts, feel for how tight they are,” he said to his crewmen. “We’ll hook up the hydraulics at dawn, it won’t take long. In the meantime, the rest of you report to the First Mate and help restowing stores. We’ll need the trim right.”

Then to Ishikawa and John as he sank with his back against the machine:

“I got this idea from the way those Suluk corsairs dogged us back from Hawaii, on the old Ark—my first voyage far-foreign, as assistant supercargo to my father. I was interested even then.”

“You were?” Thora said. “I remember being terrified, mainly.”

She’d been on that voyage, shipping out as an adventurous youngster, and had met Deor at its end, when the crippled Ark limped into Albion Cove.

“That memory made me remember how much more time merchantmen spend running from pirates than vice versa. So when we built the Queen I had the armorers from Donaldson Foundry make the tracks for the stern-chaser suitable for doubling-up. When you add in that it’s so difficult to shoot right over the bows but not over the stern...”

His grin looked positively demonic in the night, underlit beneath his trimmed black beard.

John looked through a gap in the canvas, northeast towards blackness and a heaving chaos that was visible in glimpses only because the lines of foam caught light from the sterncastle lanterns. They couldn’t see the leading Korean in the dark—there had been only a few glimpses of another, or possibly two—but he’d be there when the sun came up behind them. That had happened often enough that they’d taken to using the stern-lanterns again. Dousing them just made life harder for the crew and didn’t help shake the pursuit at all.

“Isn’t there a risk of being trapped into a broadside action?” he said; someday he’d need to understand war at sea by instinct. “If we take damage that slows us?”

Feldman’s chuckle was harsh. “In this storm? The only thing we can do is run with the wind hard on the starboard quarter. If we try to turn... or if we lost steering... or lost a major sail... we’d broach to. In an instant. Same for them.”

“Broach?” John said; the word was only vaguely familiar.

“Turn right into the wind and lay over, so we’d be hit broadside on by the next wave and capsize,” Feldman said, and Ishikawa nodded vigorously. “And be smashed to kindling and sent to Sheol when the crest fell on us. Carrying this much canvas in seas and winds like this means we’re on the edge of it every instant anyway.”

Oh, thank you, Captain. I suspected something like that, but it’s so nice to have the details!

Feldman shrugged, his usual broad gesture less visible in the dim light of the lamp and under the foul-weather gear.

“These stern-chases can go on forever, across half the world if you’re unlucky, or until you run into something solid. This damned wind is pushing us right across the Pacific; I haven’t had a good observation for days, but dead reckoning is enough for that.”

“They’re running us towards Asia and away from Montival,” John said.

Ishikawa bowed, his face invisible in the dark beneath the funnel brim of his sou’wester.

“Asia very big pr... place, Prince,” he said, and John thought he detected irony there—even through the barriers of accent and storm-roar.

Feldman nodded. “It is! Going back, that’s another question. This ship is damaged and it’s getting worse. Much longer and we couldn’t turn back, we’d have to make shore and beach her for repairs or sink. It’s worth the risk to break the stalemate.”

John swallowed and nodded, looking at the ugly bulky angular shape of levers and springs and hydraulic cylinders that crouched before them. The Queen had a complete double horseshoe of steel track set into the fantail of the quarterdeck, level with the surface like those of the tramways in a city street; the eighteen-pounder chaser could turn a full hundred and eighty degrees along it.

It also had room for two catapults to sit side-by-side, and they’d spent the night disassembling the big weapon in the bows and carrying it here to put together again beside its sister. Between that and pumping against the growing leak forward nobody had gotten much sleep.

John didn’t intend to try now; he just huddled together with Thora and Deor and Ruan, crouching silently amid the roar and wet streaming off—and sometimes under—their oilskins and sou’westers. After a while Rat McGuire, who doubled as the Captain’s steward, brought up a basket of sandwiches; pancake-like flatbread rolled around fried salt beef and hot peppers and onions and potatoes and some of the black pickled olives Feldman had taken on at Topanga, with flasks of hot herbal tea. They followed it with thick wedges of duff, which would have been far worse without the figs and raisins also picked up in Montival’s new southernmost realm.

Given how hungry they were it tasted good, and objectively it wasn’t nearly as nasty as some of the stories Thora and Deor had told him about shipboard rations they’d had on their travels. He said so, and they both laughed agreement, and added a new one where someone had whiled away the boredom by carving buttons out of the salt meat and passing them off as some rare wood at the next port.

Sometimes I envy the... the easiness they have, John thought. It’s like what Dad and Edain had—friends so close they might as well be closest kin. I’ve always been easy with people, but true friends of that sort... well, give me time, I suppose!

“Dawn soon,” Deor said, gently shaking Ruan awake where he’d dozed with his head against the scop’s shoulder.

Softly he half-sang as they stood and stretched:

 

Morning red, morning red;
Will you shine upon me dead?
Soon the trumpets will be blowing
Then must I to war be going
I and many faithful friends!”

 

John supposed the sun was rising as normal, up above the low racing grayness of the clouds. From what he’d seen flying gliders and from balloons, it was bright and glistening up there; though that was hard to remember now. Instead the dark simply grew gradually less dark over an hour or so, without any moment you could say fiat lux. He’d been expecting the hail from the masthead—

Now, there’s a job I don’t envy! he thought; they rotated it every two hours, and the one coming down always looked half-dead.

Sail ho! Sail ho, two points to starboard on the stern! It’s her, skipper!”

Feldman nodded and started to call a volley of nautical orders, supplemented by details from the First Mate. John gathered it all came to adjust the sails so we slow down just a little without looking like we’re doing it deliberately.

Despite the stinging high-speed drizzle and spray, many of the sailors were grinning as they went about their work. The bosun was downright snickering. John wasn’t the only one who’d come to resent the way the enemy was hanging on to their tails. Feldman had been getting ready for a voyage very far foreign indeed when John came to Newport with his sister’s offer. To Dhamra, the main port of the great and fabled realm of Hinduraj; on the Bay of Bengal, where no Montivallan ship had ever gone before and few individuals either, though Thora and Deor had. The crew had all been expecting six months away from home, and danger, but this was another matter. They’d been attacked in their own waters and chased away from home.

The Queen was three quarters of the way up the face of the wave when the Korean appeared cutting the crest opposite, looking chip-tiny and blurred in the darkness and the rain. Radavindraban raised a device to his eyes, a coincidence rangefinder; it was like a telescope, save that the tube was uniform and the eyepiece was in the middle of one side, with lenses at either end. They were expensive and unusual on a private ship...

But as Captain Feldman remarked, dying is even more costly.

“Four thousand yards!” he said loudly.

“She’ll be in range in the next trough, or the one after,” Feldman called. “Captain Ishikawa, are you ready?”

Ishikawa made a bow. “Hai! This is enemy we fight all our lives, enemy of our people, killers of our families and our Tennō.’

His eight men listened as he spoke briefly in their tongue, then thrust their arms into the air with a barking scream of:

Tennō Heika banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

That translated as: To the Heavenly Sovereign Majesty, Ten thousand years!

Then they moved with smooth precision to take stations at the starboard catapult. They were professionals, full-time fighting men and an elite at that; they’d been part of the crew of the Red Dragon, which their Emperor had chosen to bear him and his heir across the Pacific. The weapons the Imperial Japanese Navy used were basically very similar, and they’d worked hard to familiarize themselves with the Montivallan equivalent. Feldman’s crew were tough and well-trained, but a merchant ship fought when it had to, not as their regular trade.

Ishikawa swung into the bicycle-seat-like gunner’s position on the left of the weapon and pulled down the sighting frame until it clicked into position in front of his face. One handwheel moved the whole piece in traverse to left or right by trundling it along the steel tracks. The other governed elevation, and a bar under the right foot was the loosing trigger. The members of the crew placed the ammunition in the throwing trough, or adjusted it for the type of projectile, bolt or ball, or manned the hydraulic pump. A slanted steel shield covered the front part of the catapult, with a hole for the trough and another for the sights. The springs were salvage from before the Change or closely modeled on them—great built-up things that had originally been part of leviathan mining trucks in the ancient world, vehicles that weighed as much as a small ship themselves.

Feldman swung into the gunner’s saddle of the portside weapon. “Rig for bolt!” he said. “Load cutters!”

The rest of the crew sprang forward; one turned a lever that narrowed the rests in the trough, and the other slapped home a cutter-bolt, a four-foot arrow of forged steel with brass fins and a broad shovel-like head designed to slice through the thick tough rigging of a ship, or wound masts and spars. What it would do to human flesh and bone... well, battle wasn’t a safe occupation.

The part that concerned John just now was the pump behind the catapult proper, which was a simple enough unskilled-labor job that he could do as well as any of the sailors, which would spare the experts for more difficult work. All the task needed was a strong back and arms and steadiness. There was a rocking beam like the one used to drive inspection cars on the railways, with bars for two workers on either side to grasp. The arched steel beam drove plungers that pressurized water; hoses ran to the two multiton-load bottle jacks built into either side of the frames. Those pushed the throwing arms back and compressed the springs until the locking mechanism caught it.

The whole weapon was a simple enough thing in concept, but only the most skilled engineers and artificers could make one of this size that wouldn’t destroy itself when the vast forces within were unleashed. They needed to be precisely balanced and constrained.

He almost spat on his palms as he stepped up to his position, and then caught himself—everything was sopping wet anyway, including the thick callus on his hands. His fingers closed on the polished ashwood of the handle. Thora and Deor and Ruan joined him, almost anonymous in their sou’westers and slickers.

“Cock and lock!” Feldman said.

Junbi shimasu!” Ishikawa barked in Nihongo.

John pulled down against the soft, yielding resistance of the pump arm, throwing his weight on it as well as the strength of his arms and shoulders when it sank past the level of his waist. Thora called the time with a simple one-two... one-two. It was hard work, but no more so than running and wrestling and sparring in armor, or hitting a pell-post with a practice blade for hours at a time with a twenty-pound kite shield on his left arm.

A dozen strokes, with a tooth-grating cring... cring... from springs and gears, and then a hard chunk as the trigger mechanism locked. The other catapult did the same at an interval so close that the sounds overlapped, almost but not quite perfectly. John waited with his hands resting on the bar at waist-height and turned his head to look. He blinked when he did; a few feet away beyond the stern bulwark was the dark-blue rushing surface of the wave whose face the Tarshish Queen skidded down, with the white tumbling crest above them. They must have just come through it, and he hadn’t even noticed foam seething around his sea-boots.

Down into the trough, and the dropping note in the wind in the rigging as the crest sheltered them a little from the wind, a slowing of the feeling of rushing speed. The Korean’s bow burst through the crest as they reached the bottom, close enough that he could see the odd squared-off look just below the bowsprit. And then the menace of their bow-catapult, as the ship nosed down and began its race after them.

“Two thousand five hundred!” Radavindraban called. “Two thousand two hundred! Closing most fast!”

They started up the forward slope of the next wave, the shriek of the wind rising in pitch again, the taut sails giving a huge creaking groan as the full force of the gale stretched them and threw more strain on the standing rigging that transmitted the force to the hull. It blew more rain and spray into their eyes as they peered southward, too, and harder.

“Ready!” Feldman called.

He and Ishikawa worked the elevation wheels, and the parts of the catapult with the springs and throwing troughs tilted up at the maximum, forty degrees. John ducked his head as the wind battered at his sou’wester, and suddenly realized:

That’s why they’re not using firebolt or napalm shell, it’s not just the rain and spray. The wind would blow them off course. Especially at long range.

The Queen raced upwards. John caught a glimpse of the Korean ship down in the trough as they passed the crest and the swirl of foam burst from the bows and raced down the length of the ship. Then the gray-blue wall reared above the stern again, and they sped downward. His hands tightened involuntarily on the pump handle, and he forced himself not to pant.

There!

Shockingly closer this time, close enough to look big, not like the model ships he’d played with in the bath as a child anymore. Hundreds of tons of wood and cloth and ropes and metal, probably a hundred or more men. Close enough to see movement from the enemy bow catapult as it shot, and a blurred streak as the bolt arched out towards them and then disappeared, plunging unnoticed into the wild waters somwhere.

“Twelve hundred!” Radavindraban shouted, his voice a little higher.

Silence, if you could call the tense moment full of the moan and whistle and creak and roar of the ship silence. Then Feldman’s foot jammed down on the release lever, and:

Tunnng-WHACK!

Both the eighteen-pounders cut loose within a second of each other. The cutter-bolts vanished as the paired throwing-arms slashed forward through hundred-and-sixty degree arcs, transmitted the scores of tons of draw-weight through the cables to the bolts and rammed home into their stops of steel lined with hard rubber.

He could feel the quiver through the handle as the recoil began the process of recocking the mechanism, salvaging part of the energy. The four of them flung their strength into the bars in a grunting frenzy. Not until the machine clicked into the locked position did he have a chance to snatch a glance northwards. Now they were down in the trough, for a moment horizontal again, and the Korean was closer still and racing down the slope towards them. Its bowchaser shot again, and this time he could see the blurred streak of the bolt.

It didn’t miss.

There was a shuddering crash he felt through the soles of his boots, and for one horrific instant he thought it had smashed the rudder and they were all going to die in the next minute. Then Feldman barked:

“Mr. Mate! Take damage control!”

Radavindraban left at a run, throwing the rangefinder over his shoulder by its strap as he went. The enemy was close enough that the catapults’ own sights and Eyeball Mark One would serve.

Tunnng-WHACK!

Both the Tarshish Queen’s cutter-bolts hit; one punched a neat slit in the enemy’s foremast topsail, and the other took out a chunk of railing not far from the bowchaser. John thought it had bisected one of the enemy on the way, but the visibility was too poor and the time too scant and then he was heaving at the bar again. Forty-two strokes, forty-three, forty-four, forty-five and clack.

Tunnng-WHACK!

Closer still, and even pumping for all his worth he saw one of their bolts strike the enemy catapult’s shield and heard the hard metallic bang. The sloping steel bent but didn’t crack. It shed the bolt, which broke into two pieces. Each killed men like a flying buzz-saw as they pinwheeled across the forecastle and into the waist of the ship. The other bolt ploughed into the deck and sank until only the fins stood out.

And the return shot took the head off one of Ishikawa’s sailors at the pump opposite, only six feet away, close enough that the hard wet thump of impact was clear. One instant the man was rising and falling to the rhythm of the pump, and then next body and head were sliding down the tossing deck. Two of the Nihonjin sailors who’d been crouching in reserve leapt with tiger speed, one grabbing the body by its jacket and the head by its topknot and dragging them out of the way, the other flinging himself onto the pump-handle so quickly that the reloading was less than a second late.

At least the blasts of spray and spume and rain got rid of the blood quickly...

The bolt went on down the length of the ship, scarcely slowed at all. Ropes whipped free, and the ship began to lurch as a sail turned. A sailor made a reckless flying leap for one severed end, and nearly went over the side before another managed to get her arms around his legs. Two more drew them back, callused hands latched on to the rope and shouted directions from the First Mate and the bosun directed the swift trim of the sail and spliced a new end onto the line.

“Load roundshot!” Feldman half-screamed. “Point-blank, point-blank!”

Hands slapped the lever to leave the throwing trough at full diameter and shoved the eighteen-pound balls into position, over a spring-loaded retaining clip called the nose from its shape. The balls were surprisingly small, less than six inches in diameter, but heavy enough to soak up all the frightful kinetic energy built up in the springs.

Through the crest again, wild wind and tumult and spray enough to make you choke, the beginning of the long swoop downwards. And the Korean on their heels, close enough to see men now, close enough to see one in a plumed peaked helmet pointing a sword at them and screaming something, mouth open and teeth showing below his mustache as he yelled. Yet the sound was lost in the hugeness of the sea.

Feldman’s hand spun the elevating wheel and the trough sank. His foot slammed down on the release triggers.

Tunnng-WHACK!

A moment’s gap as Ishikawa twisted the handwheel a fraction more and his foot shot out—

Tunnng-WHACK!

At this distance there was less than a second between launch and impact. One ball smashed into the base of the enemy’s bowsprit, just where the forestay ran back to the first of her masts. The thick cable curled and cracked like a giant’s bullwhip, and the end struck the man with the crested helm. He disappeared into the rain and murk like a rag-doll thrown out a window in a child’s fit of temper. The mast began to twist instantly, the enormous forces playing on it wringing it like a stick in the hands of a boy playing at swords. Then the second roundshot cracked into the timber of the mast itself, right where the strain was bending it.

The Korean’s mast wasn’t a single tree; instead it was a composite of interlocked smaller timbers grooved and fitted together and held with shrunk-on steel bands. Normally that was about as strong as the trunk of a big Douglas fir. But when it failed, it failed all at once and catastrophically.

The whole lower half disintegrated into its parts, spinning apart and vanishing or spearing men like lumps of meat on a kebab. The upper forty feet of the mast flew into the air and hit the limits of the cables and hawsers holding it like a gigantic kite that was trying to snatch the hull’s hundreds of tons into the air. The bow of the warship slewed around as if yanked by a giant’s hand, and the rest of the sails caught the wind broadside-on and slammed downward in a maelstrom of flying ropes and bits of broken spars and human figures pinwheeling off into the storm. The ship spun three-quarters over, showing the white patches of barnacles and long fronds of weed on her bottom...

And then the crest of the great wave curled and broke and came down her like the Fist of God. The whole fabric shattered as a cheap pine box would under a boot, and then it was gone.

Just... gone, John thought, feeling his stomach knot.

The Queen was still tearing away at speed; the others were whooping against the scream of the wind and hammering each other and him on the back. The Nihonjin began a chant of:

“Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!” as they pumped their fists into the air and bowed again and again to Ishikawa, their usual gravity forgotten for a moment.

“Two hundred men,” John whispered to himself in a tone empty of everything but wonder.

The spot where the Korean had vanished didn’t even show any wreckage, and the sight leached everything but a wondering awe.

“My God, two hundred men just gone, like a cockroach under a boot!”

Slowly he crossed himself.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Lady pierced with sorrows... all of them were born of woman. Intercede for them, for us, all of us, foeman and comrade. Now and at the hour of our deaths—Madonna, intercede!

 

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