It had come down to heat, Weatherby thought as he signed his report. Between the beating Warspite had dealt Reprisal (admittedly a lesser one than she’d received in reply) and Hermes‘ timely return to the fight, they’d left Reprisal without enough radiator surface to fight or to flee.
Warspite, Reprisal, and Hermes sailed in offset column at one-third of a gravity. Reprisal couldn’t make better speed without roasting her prize crew alive, and Callamy had declared Warspite unfit for anything more than that same glacial pace.
From the daily dispatches from Resolution, Weatherby understood that even the fragmentary tale of the action off Argo that had reached Nexus had caused quite a stir. In all likelihood, his report would spark a greater one. He called in the sentry from outside his door, and sent her back out with his report and orders to hand it off to the first passerby headed roughly toward the radio room.
He went through the stack of reports on his desk, all of which he’d already read. Some concerned the damage to Warspite, others the inventory of spare radiator parts he’d lent to Reprisal‘s jury-rig. One was a list of Exile prisoners put aboard Warspite, and another named the members of Warspite‘s company now aboard Reprisal as prize crew.
Of all of them, there was only one left that required any action on his part. He called the sentry again, and she poked her head in through the hatch.
“No disturbances, if you please,” Weatherby said.
“Aye aye, sir.”
Weatherby set Warspite‘s casualty list off to one side, and set a piece of fine paper before him. It was good, he thought, that he had three weeks before they’d put in at Resolution. He was going to need the time. He picked up his pen and began to write:
Undersecretary of the Naval Arm for Personnel and Recruitment Sir Balfour Hughes:
It is with the deepest sorrow I must report to you that your son, Winston Hughes, went missing and is presumed lost after Warspite‘s engagement with the Exile protected cruiser Reprisal.
Three weeks later, Warspite held position twenty kilometers from Resolution. She was under spin, and Weatherby had ordered the crew assembled on the boat deck, which was little more than gratings tucked between the portside radiators and the hull. Overhead, the cutter and captain’s gig hung from their rails.
There’d not been time for a proper burial on the steam back, not between the feverish pace of major repairs and the necessity of keeping watch over the prisoners, all with less than half a full complement. Now, though, there would be a few moments for remembrance before Warspite limped back to Caledonia for patching up, and then to the Fleet Yards in Basis for the overhaul she would need.
Weatherby stood flanking the chaplain, facing the caskets and the ship’s company past them, against a backdrop of stars lazily rotating with the ship’s spin. The chaplain finished his benediction, and Weatherby stepped up to take his place.
Weatherby had written enough of these letters to occasionally and guiltily find himself in a morbid sort of rhythm. A few paragraphs describing the circumstances, a few on the outstanding qualities of the deceased. Mr. Hughes certainly had the latter.
Weatherby read the letter from start to finish, and heaved a heavy sigh. The world was worse of for having lost as fine an officer and as fine a young man as Hughes. Weatherby moved down the page to sign, then shook his head and started another paragraph:
Even to the very last, Mr. Hughes carried himself with honor and bravery, in keeping with the finest traditions of this Service. I am proud to have called him a part of my crew, and it is with many sorrows at his loss that I have the honor to remain,
Your obediant servant,
Charles Faustus Weatherby
Ship’s Commander, Warspite
Weatherby took a deep breath, looked up past the assembled crew, and spoke the name of each of the one hundred and fifty crew who had died in pursuit of victory. Harold Talbot, senior warrant officer. Winston Hughes, ship’s subensign. Erich Ostertag, gunnery sublieutenant. Lawrence Banks, ship’s sublieutenant. Finally, mercifully, he came to the end of the list. Now the sad strains of the Hymn of the Naval Arm played over the suit radio.
It crescendoed to its conclusion, and Weatherby said, “Ship’s company— dismissed.” The crew filed toward the airlocks, and Weatherby couldn’t help but think that, even though his ship was bound for home, it wouldn’t be long before he would once again have to steel himself for the Hymn’s last line:
We sail off to war.