We Sail Off To War No. 12

Though the combat bridge hadn’t taken any hits directly, it still seemed to Winston that Warspite was falling to pieces around them. A scent of burning electrics wormed its way to his nose. The damage control repeater screen, during the brief intervals when it showed anything at all, showed vast swaths of the ship open to vacuum. A few minutes ago, there’d been a great commotion over one of the ship’s engines falling out. In spite of it all, Weatherby looked remarkably unworried. Warspite had her opposite side radiators intact, her remaining engines in good shape, and all her main guns firing. Winston supposed that was enough.

For once, he anticipated the violent jolt that accompanied Warspite‘s volley. The plotting table showed Warspite and Reprisal still running broadside-to-broadside. Evasive maneuvering had narrowed the range to two hundred kilometers. A thousand kilometers back, Hermes closed on Reprisal‘s opposite beam, firing her centerline kinetic every minute or so.

Impact alarms sounded, and Warspite shook under another hit. Winston had lost count around thirty. Damage reports filtered up from the enlisted men and junior officers at the control stations to the lieutenants supervising them. Only one was critical enough to warrant Weatherby’s attention: “We’ve lost communications with R turret,” Leighton reported.

“Mr. Hughes, run a cable down there, if you please,” said Weatherby. Winston saluted. “Mr. Rawlins,” Weatherby continued, “If you’ve another half-gravity to give, see about persuading Reprisal to show Hermes her other broadside.”

Winston could handle a gravity and a half without trouble, so he climbed out of his acceleration chair after directing it into the corridor. Officers and men assigned to damage control charged past in a near-constant stream, and Winston made himself unobtrusive against the bulkhead while he fiddled with his chair’s controls, calling up the latest damage control report on the arm screen. He set out, his chair following a step behind him. It played out a comms cable, and Winston tacked it to the wall every meter or two.

It couldn’t have been more than about forty meters between the combat bridge and R turret, but Winston chose a path that kept him near Warspite‘s centerline, in atmosphere for as long as possible and out of the main spinal corridors, clogged as they were certain to be with corpsmen and damage control parties. Even the secondary corridors were busy, Winston thought. He passed access panels propped open, with warrant officers digging around in the equipment inside. Damage control teams passed him dashing forward, and stretcher-carriers passed him headed aft. Winston quickly learned to keep his eyes away from the horrors borne by the latter.

He came to an airtight door, the fifth since he’d set out. His chair spat out a cable end, and Winston plugged it into the patch panel before he cranked the hatch open, passed through with his chair, and plugged a new cable into the patch panel’s duplicate on this side.

Ahead, a portable airlock abutted the next hatch. Above it hung a status indicator, which glowed crimson. Three sailors and a sublieutenant, all wearing the heavy oversuits that marked them as damage control, waited. Winston joined them. The status light went green, the airlock cycled open, and two corpsmen charged past. The man on their litter held a patch against his gut, blood now thawing and beginning to seep around his fingers. Winston looked away, then followed the damage control party into the lock, acceleration chairs piling in around them. He triggered his helmet, and it emerged from the collar of his undersuit, then closed around his head like the petals of a flower before fusing into uniform transparency. The far hatch opened, and the damage control party charged off. Winston waited for them to clear the lock, then set off again.

Here, the damage to the ship was more obvious. Panels from the bulkheads and ceiling had rattled loose, owing either to the concussion of Warspite‘s own gunfire or the hits from Reprisal. Scorch marks scored surfaces against which electrical fires had burned, before being extinguished by damage control or ever-encroaching vacuum. Red emergency lighting filled the gaps where regular panels had burnt out. Damage control parties rushed silently past, some carrying hull patches and welding equipment. Others carried electrics, wiring, compute modules and the like, and still others had firefighting gear. He frowned at the latter. He was nearly to R turret now, after a winding sixty-meter path he hoped would keep his cable safe. Two more airtight doors would take him to R turret’s comm’s panel. At the first, a damage control team was setting up a portable airlock. One oversuit bore sublieutenant’s stripes, so Winston saluted it.

“As you were. Where does that comms line go?” the sublieutenant demanded.

“The combat bridge, sir,” Winston replied, and the sublieutenant snatched it and plugged her suit in. “Lannier. Lieutenant Leighton,” she said. Winston realized he was hearing only half of the conversation. “Major fire outside the Number One magazine, sir. No, sir. Incendiary rounds, I think. No, sir. We can’t raise Subcommander Jones from here. No, sir, the controls wouldn’t respond. Yes, sir.” Sublieutenant Lannier turned to her team. “Open it up. We’re venting this section.”

Air whistled past them, but the glow of ignited metal remained further along the corridor. An incendiary shell was little more than oxidizer and ignition. The hull did the rest, and even if it was perhaps less impressive than traditional licking tongues of flame, it was just as dangerous and ten times as hard to deal with.

“Ensign,” said Lannier, “we’ll need your cable. Where were you headed?”

“R turret, sir.”

“Do you have another spool?”

“No, sir.” Cursing his ill-preparedness, he offered no excuse.

Lannier took a long moment to decide. At length, she swore and said, “Follow us. Stay well back until we have the fires out.”

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