We Sail Off To War No. 9 – First Blood

For the tiniest fraction of a moment, Winston saw the lights in CIC glow brighter. Then they shut off, and the crew stations and repeater screens flickered out an instant later. The darkness lingered for more than the second or so it should have, and over the ring of a sound-powered phone, Weatherby said, “Mr. Callamy?”

“Very good, Lieutenant,” said Callamy, and then there was a click Winston identified as the phone going back in its cradle. “It was the sentry circuit, sir, burned out,” Callamy reported. “The reactor is fine. We’ll have power in fifteen seconds.”

Winston counted to thirteen before the lights came back on. Warspite, like all warships, was best employed with her electronics intact, even if at their best they were designed for durability rather than flashiness. Hardening couldn’t protect everything, however, and like all warships, Warspite could be run essentially on vacuum tubes, though that was a contingency best avoided. A damage control party clattered through the inboard hatch in mobile acceleration chairs like Winston’s, the chairs’ articulated legs engaging the toeholds on the deck.

The crew stations came back to life, running self-diagnostics. The bridge watch opened access panels to remove damaged components, and the sailors of the damage control party passed out modular replacements. Less than thirty seconds had passed since Reprisal’s missile hit, but that was far longer than was preferable. Winston drummed his fingers nervously, noticing some similar sign of anxiety from nearly every one of the junior officers present.

There was a burst of chatter as systems came online. Rawlins spun his chair to face Weatherby. “Signal from Hermes,” he said. At the same time, a sensor operator called, “Reprisal’s bow on to us, accelerating— two gravities, two five, three… three two.”

“Helmsman, put her on our after quarter, three seven five by zero. Engines ahead full,” said Weatherby. “The message, Mr. Rawlins?”

Winston felt himself settle into his acceleration chair as Warspite’s engine note grew more insistent. The helmsman repeated the order, and Rawlins spoke over him. “Just a moment, sir, it’s blink code… ah. Reactor safety shutdown at missile second pulse stop restart in progress stop need ten minutes stop.” He watched his display, and then looked up. “Message repeats, sir.”

Weatherby rubbed at the back of his neck, a gesture Winston thought must have been very deeply ingrained to turn up under three gee. “Belay that last, helmsman,” he said, and the slight pressure of Warspite’s turn eased. “Bow onto Reprisal, Mr. Rawlins. Take us across her stern. Mr. Leighton, engage with masers as they bear, and stand ready the missiles.”

“Sir, we—” Winston blurted out.

“—cannot give Reprisal a clear run at Hermes, Mr. Hughes,” Weatherby snapped, “and I’ll thank you to limit contributions such as that in the midst of an engagement.”

“Yessir,” Winston replied automatically, but Weatherby’s attention was already elsewhere.

“Range two thousand closure ten, bearing two zero five by up one hundred,” Petty Officer Preble said, from his place by the sensor stations. “She’s not turning.”

“Ahead flank, Mr. Rawlins. Give me a low velocity delta as we cross her,” said Weatherby, “and I needn’t tell you not to show her our stern.”

Warspite turned end for end and poured on more steam. Winston’s chair reclined further, almost horizontal now, and a great weight settled on Winston’s chest. He concentrated on his breathing for a few heartbeats, recalling long sessions in the centrifuges before his deployment began, and shortly found his five-gravity rhythm. He turned his eyes to his chair display. Warspite was angled off the straight course to Reprisal, keeping her engines and their vulnerable hydrogen plumbing well clear of Reprisal’s guns. Rawlins would use a bit more thrust and a bit more fuel to make a great loop at Reprisal rather than driving directly in.

“Range one thousand, closure four.”

“Mr. Leighton, two volleys from the forward tubes to arrive simultaneously, and stand ready the guns,” Weatherby said. “Volley one at seven fifty.”

Preble turned his chair toward the plotting board and said, “She’s coming about, sir.”

“Good,” said Weatherby, smiling tightly. “Match velocities, Mr. Rawlins. Five hundred kilometers, if you can.”

“Match velocities, five hundred kilometers, aye.”

Weatherby shifted his head on his chair’s rest. “Gentlemen,” he said flatly, “we are going to take a pounding.” The bridge talker, quick on the switch, had put Weatherby over the annunciator, and his voice echoed in compartments and corridors through the whole of the ship. “Likely this will be as hard a fight as any of us will ever face.” Leighton spoke softly, and the guns rumbled through the frame as Weatherby continued. “We fight today for our honor, and for the honor of our flag. We fight for a victory— not ours, but Hermes’ also. We need not defeat Reprisal ourselves. We need only last.” He took a breath. “So stand by your guns, men, and be about your damage control with stout hearts and all haste. Hold fast, and Godspeed.”

“Guns are a miss. Missiles in five,” Leighton reported in the silence that followed. Winston called up the plotting board repeater on his chair display, and saw eight blips making their final runs at Reprisal. There was no finesse to them, which told Winston they carried anti-radiator shrapnel heads. They would be set up to detonate the moment a maser found them, showering whatever was before them with a cloud of high-speed debris. The dots winked out in quick succession, and Leighton said, “Hits.”

At the same time, Preble shouted, “Incoming!”

Impact alarms hooted, and before Weatherby could order it, Rawlins called rapid-fire orders to the helmsman. Winston felt Warspite’s acceleration shift as side thrusters kicked in.

“Another volley,” said Preble.

“Range?” Weatherby asked.

“Six one eight.”

“Mr. Rawlins, if you have an opening, get us to five hundred.”

“Five hundred, sir,” Rawlins replied, finding a moment to slip something coherent into a stream of navigational orders Winston had long since lost track of.

“Reprisal’s first volley in ten,” said Preble. “Her next in nineteen. She’s fired another, sir.”

“Mr. Rawlins?” Weatherby said. Rawlins spared him a nod to say that he’d avoid the first volley, and Winston relaxed. He had fifteen seconds or so to watch the shells trace their way across the radar repeater screen. Between that and the plotting board, he could build a reasonable tactical picture in his head and spend a moment appreciating the gunnery.

Hitting one spacecraft from another with an unguided projectile was, as his instructors had told him many times, a difficult problem. Shooting for your target straightaway was a recipe for miss after miss. Leighton was placing his shots to bracket Reprisal, giving her no place to go but away from Warspite or into at least one of Warspite’s shots. Reprisal’s gunnery lieutenant was doing the same thing, though, and Rawlins could not work miracles. Winston saw the radar echo of one of the thirty-eight-centimeter shells from Reprisal’s second volley on a line to intersect Warspite’s course, and that was the best possible outcome. Rawlins was cornered.

“Three, two, one,” Preble said.

 

Reprisal’s shell was an invisible dot against a diamond-on-velvet backdrop. It streaked in low on Warspite’s flank, striking her radiators just forward of her after ventral turret. The nose of the shell crumpled and spread, and then it exploded. Warspite’s radiators rippled from the shock—

 

It was a lie to say that there was no sound in space, Winston thought. He’d felt the impact as much as he’d heard it, a thump that Warspite’s bulk could not fully absorb. Now there was the screech of tearing hullmetal, a noise to set his teeth on edge.

Callamy shouted over it. “That’s the dorsal spar on the number three mast, captain! She’s coming free!”

“Next volley in eight! Reprisal is closing range!”

“Atmosphere leaks in A ring compartments starboard side, frames thirty-four to thirty-eight!”

Over the chaos, Weatherby spoke, his voice raised but his manner steely. “Mr. Leighton, fire at will. All weapons.”

Winston gripped the arms of his chair and steadied himself. The battle was on.

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