Every subensign knew the tale of NPAS William Henry Harrison, gun frigate of the Sixth Fleet and the only Naval Arm ship to lose an engagement with the enemy between the Threshold Rebellion and the Exile War. Harrison had received a distress call from a pirate disguised as a merchant that had just been the target of a pirate attack, and came alongside at thirty kilometers. She sent a boat and an engineering crew toward the pirate, and then explosions blew panels off the pirate’s flanks to reveal a battleship-grade particle beam cannon mounted internally. Her first shot had nearly sawn Harrison in half. Harrison eventually forced her off, but lost her captain and spent eight months in drydock after she limped back to the Basis Fleet Yards.
Weatherby wasted no time; he knew exactly what Winston meant. “Ahead flank, straight away from her. Gunnery, put a volley of missiles behind us, and keep the turrets firing aft. When she reaches seventy kilometers, turn to show our starboard broadside and engage with every maser you can bring to bear.”
Orders and echoes of confirmation flew back and forth across CIC, and very shortly Warspite‘s engines ran up again. Winston, pressed deeply into his chair, watched Warspite‘s missiles streak abaft on the sensor screens. Preble called out hits, and then Warspite spun, her acceleration dropping back to one gee. Her guns rumbled, and indicators above the engineering stations fluctuated wildly as the maser batteries opened fire.
Warspite‘s opponent turned, engines glowing, and drew up next to Warspite at twenty-five kilometers. Panels blew off her flanks, and unconsciously Winston tightened his grim on his armrests as the sensor screens showed the twin barrels of a particle beam cannon bear on Warspite.
Weatherby shouted for evasive maneuvers, but at this range there was no question of her opponent missing. Particle beams lanced into Warspite‘s side, and—
It was oddly silent. Telltales above the engineering stations flashed red, though, and Lieutenant Callamy said, “Bridge talker, please inform all starboard compartments between frames fifty-four and sixty-eight and outboard of B ring that they are open to vacuum.”
Winston exhaled. It was just a drill. That was not cause to relax, though; Warspite still had a faster, heavily-armed foe—even if she was imaginary—in spitting range, and he knew Weatherby was not accustomed to losing.
It would have been difficult to call the ensuing slugging match a victory for Warspite. At the end, the engineering displays had shown the ship gashed with angry red where the particle beams had bit, and other spatters where her opponent’s secondaries had found her. Winston was forced to admit it would also be difficult to call it a loss, an opinion Winston had formed when the sensor displays showed the other ship breaking in two.
At the captain’s request, Winston had followed him down to the patrol bridge. Commander Lassiter was waiting there. He and Weatherby shook hands, and although they didn’t speak, Winston sensed words passing between them. Lassiter stepped past the two of them, and Weatherby shook his head ruefully. “My patrol cabin, please, Mr. Hughes.”
Weatherby waved Winston to a chair and circled around behind his desk. Winston sat cautiously. Private meetings senior officers rarely led anywhere good.
Weatherby tossed his hat onto the desktop and showed the beginnings of a smile. “Lassiter’s been angling for a win over me since he got his command,” he said.
“Sir,” Winston replied. It was something the petty officers had shown him, a wonderful verbal equivalent of a shrug.
“That was the—” Weatherby broke off and shot Winston a close look, but that was another game the petty officers had described, and Winston’s face was blank. The captain continued, suspicion fading from his voice. “That was the closest he’s come. Rather closer than I would have preferred; in fact, you may have snatched his victory from him.”
Weatherby sat and, to Winston’s incredulity, slouched. “I told him to come up with something difficult for us, Ensign, and not to tell me what it was. Had it not been for your insight I expect I would have been inclined to let him close. I extend you my thanks; I appreciate your effort to keep my record unblemished. You have a feel for tactics rarely seen in officers your age. Your father has every reason to be proud.” He took his hat and turned it over in his hands. “Which brings me to my next point.
“My senior officers are writing me reports on the mission—their thoughts on the plan, on tricks to use against whichever cruiser we lure away, and on whatever else they can come up with. It’s a habit of mine; they’ll usually spot something I haven’t.” Weatherby fixed Winston with a look. “You’ve shown some capacity to do exactly that. Write up your thoughts, Mr. Hughes, and have them on my desk before we leave Resolution tomorrow.”
Weatherby looked down at his desk computer. The silence dragged on, and Winston shifted in his chair. Weatherby looked up again. “That will be all, Ensign.”
Winston made his way down the companionways in Warspite‘s ventral well. Warspite would be under thrust for another two or three hours, and Winston figured on sixteen hours of final provisioning.
That gave him time for sleep, so he passed the junior officers’ wardroom and returned to his quarters—even an ensign rated a room of his own, if one little more than a bed-sized closet. He stood in the corridor to fold the bunk down from the wall and told the computer to wake him when Warspite‘s engines went silent. He was asleep in minutes.