Ship’s Sublieutenant (Engineering) Lawrence Banks would hotly contest any claim that his men weren’t efficient, but he had to concede that his command was not exactly a quiet one. The engine room was one of the largest open spaces on the ship, and between the engines themselves and their associated hydrogen plumbing, it was difficult to hear any noise below a shout.
He had men at the controls at each engine; much of the central panel had blown after the first EMP. Lieutenant Callamy, calling down from CIC, was demanding cooler temperatures, so Banks’ men were practically running the engines by hand, easing back on the heat and cranking up the fuel flow rates to compensate.
Banks had enough central telltales left to organize the effort. “Mr. Howell!” he shouted to a warrant officer at the Number Seven engine. “Back her down!”
Howell nodded, spoke inaudibly to his subordinates, and then stepped up to the controls. Banks watched for a moment, looked at his indicators to see the temperature still rising, and jogged over. His acceleration chair scuttled after him.
“She won’t respond, sir!” Howell said.
Banks took stock of the panel. Howell had pulled the magnetic nozzle control to full-open. The fuel should have been gushing out the back of the engine barely lukewarm, but instead it was sticking in the plasma chamber, heating up still further.
“Pull the override and shut her down! We’ll deal with it later!” Banks shouted.
Howel flipped a heavy switch on the panel. “Nothing!”
One of Howell’s crew poked his head around the bulk of the engine and called, “It’s a short past the regulator circuit, sir!”
Banks’ eyes went wide, and he set off at a sprint toward the power control panel. Behind him, the temperature gauges flashed dangerous shades of red. “Cut the power to Number Seven’s pumps! She’s a run—”
The engine room was one of the best-protected places on the ship, nestled centerline in the midst of thickened bulkheads, but the sheer energy of Reprisal’s 38-centimeter shells at seven kilometers per second was simply too much for Warspite’s hull. Five meters ahead of Banks, there was a flash and a terrible noise, as a shell tore through the portside bulkhead, shot through the engine room in an eyeblink, and crashed out the far side. The detonation came a fractional moment later, and Banks picked himself up off the deck with little recollection of how he’d got there. His pressure helmet had begun to extrude itself from his collar, its petals fusing before his eyes. Crewmen ran past him, and he turned to see the Number Seven engine glowing orange. He took halting steps toward it, grimacing at the sharp pain in his gut. A catwalk circled the insulated fuel pipe that fed Number Seven, a ladder leading up to it. He took the rungs in hand and pulled himself upward. Frost from the chill of the fuel covered the manual override valve. Banks took it in hand.
From their handholds around the engine room, the crew waited for the engine to light her fuel line, and for the attendant explosion that would crack Warspite in half. It never came.
Banks gave the valve an extra twist, just to be certain, and stumbled back against the railing. He could feel the burns beneath his pressure suit, and could barely stand against the pain. Below him, though, the deck itself was turning from red to orange, and it was starting to sag. He forced his feet to move—
“Jump!” Howell screamed. “Lieutenant, jump!” He let go of his hold and ran at the Number Seven engine. Banks staggered to the edge of the catwalk, but before Howell’s eyes, the decking gave way. The engine dropped out of sight, Banks with it.
Warspite yawed visibly before coming under control, her Number Seven engine turning to vapor in the exhaust of the others as it fell out the back of the ship.
From Hermes’ vantage, two thousand kilometers away, the dull red sparks of Warspite’s and Reprisal’s radiators were practically invisible. Hermes herself was still and silent, but not cold. It was difficult to distinguish between a recently dead ship and one still able to fight. Heat had to flow along the ship’s conduits out to the radiators and then dissipate into space, and it was occasionally the case, in the confusion of battle, that an apparent corpse would prove to have a good deal of kick left. So it was with Hermes. Her engineers had restarted her reactor, and now she crept forward on maneuvering thrusters while her main kinetic charged.
The main kinetic, mounted centerline, was far and away the most dangerous weapon Hermes carried. For all practical purposes, it was the same weapon found in battleship turrets. It didn’t bother with explosive shells or any such nonsense as that. It simply fired a one-kilogram penetrator at something past seven hundred fifty kilometers per second. Even at this range, one could hardly miss.
In Hermes’ CIC, an indicator showed green. Maneuvering thrusters put the ship’s nose on target. There was a bright flash as she fired the kinetic, and then her engines lit, and at seven gravities she charged toward the battle.