“The best way to predict the future is to endeavor to create it.”
The morning was draped across the skies over Calopa like some lethargic god; it basked in the wonders of its own magnificent hues, and asked for just a few more minutes sleep in the cool air. Morning seemed to beg for midday to wait just a while longer, and laid quiet and still. Its presence was a feather light touch upon the sprawling lands below, and only the early risers or the unlucky sleepless were aware of it at all.
Captain Arlen Wrightland was both of these. At least, he thought himself terribly unlucky on this morning. He had the unfortunate distinction of being the wrong man in the right place far too often.
His career was littered with such occurrences. It had lead to his being unwittingly volunteered for service aboard an Azure Admiralty general cargo ship when he had simply wanted to occupy a desk in comfort aboard a Skyhold. His dedication and attention to detail—all in the service of simply wanting to do the best with what he was given—got him tapped to transfer to a Gun-Cruiser dealing with some of Calopa’s most dangerous criminals, and again, his request for a desk job was denied. His efforts in dealing with the Corsair Fleets of the Unaligned Nation earned him recognition and a one-way ticket to officer candidacy school, which seemed bereft of any and all desk jobs as well.
At every turn, Arlen Wrightland was simply following the lessons that his father instilled in him: regardless if life hands you something you did not ask for or want, you should work hard and see it through, so that you might be rewarded with what you truly desire.
Arlen’s hard work and dedication in unwanted position after unwanted position had earned him everything but what he longed for. Instead of a quiet life serving the Azure Admiralty, and fixing the ruins of the world through the accounting and bureaucracy he knew so well, Arlen found himself in command of an Admiralty Carrier ship: one of the most prestigious, stressful, and dangerous tenures a person could know, and all this by his fortieth name-day celebration.
Granted, there was finally a desk nestled in his impressive quarters aboard the behemoth, but Captain Wrightland never got the chance to sit at it. With over nine hundred personnel aboard, thirty aerial vehicles ready to launch at a moments notice, and over two hundred meters of ship to maneuver safely through the capricious skies, the Triumphant monopolized every second of Captain Wrightland’s waking attention. The long sought after desk was now merely a catch-all for old reports, loose change, and letters from home.
Captain Wrightland would have cursed his luck, if ever there was truly time to do so. Life as an Azure Admiralty officer rarely left time for personal affairs or introspection, and this morning was proving to be business as usual in that regard. Following the trend of ever being the wrong man in the right place, Captain Wrightland had the distinction of being in command of the only carrier attached to the 5th Aeronaut Fleet of the Azure Admiralty’s Grand Armada. As the Triumphant carried the best wireless telegraph receivers in the 5th fleet, it just so happened that Captain Wrightland was the first officer to read the morning’s order from the Admiralty Command, even though he was not in direct command of the 5th Fleet itself. It came at the right place, to the wrong man, who was at that moment, in his cabin at the end of an already very long night, and just trying to fall asleep.
He had barely closed his tired eyes to try to make the most of this much needed nap when the radio operator politely knocked on his cabin door, and utterly shattered his hopes of ever being a simple accountant ever again. The petty officer saluted, and presented the slip of yellow paper bearing the official Admiralty insignia and that week’s code phrase that verified it as a genuine message. Captain Wrightland sighed and accepted it, then remembered his protocol and tiredly returned the waiting man’s salute.
ATTN: 5TH AERONAUT FLEET. STAND BY ON PRESENT POSITION. ARMADA FORCES EN ROUTE. WILL REACH YOUR LOCATION BY MORNING. COMMAND WILL BE DIRECTED BY ADM. RHAEGIR.
The Captain paused in his reading, too shocked for a moment to continue. The entire Armada had not come together in any manner of combined effort since the end of the Vizier War. That alone spoke of something that was momentous, and more than likely world altering. The revelation slapped Captain Wrightland out of exhaustion and into full sober alertness, and the words that followed the order twisted that alertness into absolute dread.
GOLDEN AEGIS LOCATED. TRACKED. ARMADA WILL ENGAGE.
CAPTURE NOT A PRIORITY. R.O.E. INVALID BY AAC AUTHORITY.
With those two simple lines, Captain Wrightland felt as if Calopa itself was poised to fly apart like old ashes. Everything that had been set forth by the Azure Admiralty- from its laws in the skies to the hard work in rebuilding a shattered world- could be completely undone by this operation.
Captain Wrightland glanced down at the message once more, only to find it torn into halves. He had not even realized he had done so. The two pieces of paper were slightly crumpled in hands that were already starting to show the onset of old age, and Captain Wrightland could only sigh at the waste of it all—both youth, and the good sailors and citizens that would likely be killed over the next few hours. There was nothing for it. Whatever condition the paper was in, the orders remained the same. Though they were completely mad, the orders were to be obeyed. Wrong man or no, Arlen Wrightland obeyed orders without fail.
They were to be obeyed, even if the orders meant catastrophic failure. In this case, their target almost guaranteed a loss that might spell the end of Captain Wrightland’s fortunate-yet-cursed career, if not the whole of the Admiralty.
The target was the stuff of fevered nightmares. The Golden Aegis, the victorious flagship of Absalohm the Betrayer, the undefeated nightmare of the skies. It had been located, and the entire might of the Azure Admiralty was being brought to bear against it.
The Captain bit back an oath. In the two years spent fighting Absalohm’s combined forces, the Golden Aegis alone had sent one hundred and forty-seven Admiralty ships crashing to the surface of Calopa, with the number of dead and injured beyond accurate count. Absalohm’s technological masterpiece had orchestrated a symphony of genocide across the face of Calopa, and had stopped cold everything the Admiralty and other sovereign nations had thrown at it with complete ease.
By this fact alone, one could call these new orders mad, but the almost informal inclusion of the final words on the message spoke of complete desperation:
CAPTURE NOT A PRIORITY. R.O.E. INVALID BY AAC AUTHORITY.
The Azure Admiralty Command Board was no longer interested in bringing Absalohm to justice. It wanted vengeance, and a unquestionable victory. The Board wanted Absalohm dead, and his flagship destroyed, regardless of the loss of the brilliant innovations it contained. Moreover, the Board was confirming what so many had come to believe already; this was the Admiralty’s—and by extension Calopa’s—last stand.
R.O.E. Invalid. The Rules of Engagement. The guiding laws of civility in combat set forth by the Admiralty and participating sovereign nations that had kept order and mercy alive in the skies were no longer applicable. It no longer mattered where the enemy was to be found. Be it over the seas, or over a thriving city of innocents, the order was destruction at any cost. As far as the Board was concerned, Calopa was now a free-fire zone, and collateral damage be damned. The Azure Admiralty had ordered its entire remaining forces to give no quarter, and have zero regard.
Madness, desperation, and terror.
Captain Wrightland tossed the ruined message onto the pile atop his desk in disgust, but still dutifully ordered the radio operator to pass the message up the chain to the rest of the 5th Fleet. He quickly tidied his dress uniform— an austere blue so dark that it was nearly black set with silver trim to reflect the change in season as per Admiralty codes—and examined himself in the gilded mirror above the wash basin.
A lined, somber face with close-cropped black hair that was already white at the temples stared back at him. Tired green eyes surveyed his uniform quickly with the long practice of a career military man. Acceptable state of dress and hygiene. Rules to follow, orders to obey. The rest of the Azure Admiralty may be just short of loathed by the rest of the world for its iron control of the skies, and the Board may have lost its collective minds, but by the Gods, Arlen Wrightland would do the best he could with a job he did not ask for, and that meant that regulations and discipline would be observed and respected.
As he made his way down the cramped corridors and up precariously angled ladders towards the bridge, the Captain focused on that mantra. Rules to follow, orders to obey. It was all he had at this point to keep him from ordering the Triumphant to break away from the fleet and return to the Skyhold dock it had been berthed at only two weeks before.
No. Orders must be followed. He had a ship to protect, and a job to complete. He quickly returned a flurry of salutes from passing crew, who were quick to clear out of his path upon seeing his grim expression. The journey through the twists and turns of the ship’s innards was lengthy, but the Captain hardly noticed; he was too lost in the scramble to keep order to his own thoughts. Hatches to other areas of the airship flashed by, and additional ladders leading up or down to other interior decks were ignored. The floating city that was Triumphant was a passing blur to the Captain, who simply let his feet take him forward on the well-trod path to his destination.
Rules to follow, orders to obey. Ready the ship, ready the crew. The litany repeated itself without end.
Finally, he stepped through the hatch to the bridge itself. Two men-at-arms, ever ready with their short sabers and machine-pistols flanked the doorway. Each snapped to attention as he passed, twins in precision action and bearing and the very real aura of potential violence. They were new faces to Captain Wrightland, and probably just transferred aboard from Skyhold Yumaer, but it was clear that their bearing would fit in nicely aboard the ship. The Triumphant was crewed by the best that the Admiralty had to offer, though of course, her good Captain would allow that he was biased.
The rising sun was flooding the large control room with red-gold light that gleamed off polished wooden surfaces and bounced between the tangle of brass communication and copper line tubes that dominated the ceiling. Even the gold inlay design that crisscrossed the deck beneath his feet and formed the ornate crest of the Admiralty was almost aglow. Gilded lines, spotless planes, and fine craftsmanship; the power and wealth of the Admiralty was on display. The dedication and discipline of his crew made that display radiate light and pride.
The bridge officers and crew were already at their stations, managing the ship under the previous night’s standing orders and flight plan. A trio of expansive deck-to-ceiling windows set in an arc at the head of the room displayed the wasted morning that shone on a flurry of activity all the way to the bow. Riggers tended the lines and detritus that kept order on control surfaces and catwalks that allowed crew to reach stations on the giant structures to either side of the main ship; the “tanks”, as they were affectionately called. These elliptical structures, like great steel gray metal cigars festooned with walkways and smaller balconies that jutted outward from its surface, contained additional compartments and the necessary gas filled cells to keep the ship aloft. Nacelles housing powerful engines lined their underbellies, all leading back to a set of four fins each, and two massive propellers. The rigid superstructures flanked and even slightly dwarfed the main body of the Carrier, lending it an almost comical—if still impressive—silhouette. The casual observer often remarked that Admiralty Carriers looked like great liners of the sea being crushed between two giant metal sausages.
Of course, Triumphant had never, nor would ever know the sea along her keel. She was only rated and constructed for the skies, to which her Captain was quietly grateful. Arlen Wrightland would gladly pass up any desk aboard anything on the water, thank you very much.
Deck crew scurried over the forecastle seeing to everything from polishing rails and securing tackle to checking atmospheric conditions and relaying any changes in the air to navigation and engineering. Other crew checked the previous night’s work on the top deck, as well as the starboard and port envelope armament; cleaning the breaches of the few small bore cannons and oiling down the actions of the forward auto-guns and gyro-nests. All labored under the weight of their breathing tanks, though the cruising altitude the ship now sailed at made the masks unnecessary. The Captain had trained his crew well to always be prepared for any situation, up to and including the call to rapidly ascend to where breathable air was nothing but a whisper.
Down below, the Captain knew that the flight hangars would be even busier, as mechanics, pilots, and ever busy Airedales would be seeing to the lengthy laundry list of the aircraft, and their special needs. The whole of the flight deck stretched from bow to stern, and could be lowered in three elevator sections and bow and stern bay doors to let fly with a swarm of Triumphant’s smaller craft. Such was the true power of the carrier: she was more beehive than battleship.
Further aft, the Captain surmised that the Engineers would have just rotated their shift, and the morning crew would already be at work keeping Triumphant’s massive turbines, boilers, engines, control lines, and ballast systems running smoothly. Each section of the ship, from main body to the two tanks carried an independent engineer compliment, but the main body housed the true control center of all the devilish machinery necessary to keep her soaring.
Elsewhere, the Arithnomancers would be plying their strange powers of probability; tweaking the millions of conditions that ruled the science of cruising the skies. Arlen was often spooked by the members of that order, but damned if they weren’t useful and welcomed.
All was proceeding in the orderly fashion of regulation and practice this morning. Captain Wrightland smiled sadly, as he could even smell the kitchen’s handiwork as they made ready for the morning meal.
The Triumphant and her diligent crew were already wide awake and well under way for the day’s normal operations. Sadly, things were about to become anything but routine. Captain Wrightland enumerated all of Triumphant’s advance machinery in his head, from the tanks to the propulsion system and still more, and grimaced. They were bound for a battle against the man who had given them much of that same technology, or who was responsible for much of the theories that made such innovation posible.
Absalohm, in the days before his genius gave way to despotism, had birthed the revolution that truly made taming the skies possible. Before Absalohm, the Skyholds were merely a dream, and flight was too often a gamble. Triumphant, and most of the grand ships of the Admiralty were as much Absalohm’s creation as was the Golden Aegis, and here they were, preparing to take on that mental giant in the very seat of his power.
Madness, desperation, and- Gods save him- orders to be obeyed. It was time again to do the best he could with what he had been given.
The Captain approached the officer standing at the helm with the navigator. The officer was young to have earned the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, and his Seltish-bred good looks and easy smile earned him the ire of other Officers in the Admiralty, but the Captain trusted his Executive Officer with his life and ship. All aboard the Triumphant knew Lieutenant-Commander Halran to be a stalwart and honorable officer worthy of loyalty, regardless of his blood.
“Halran, report,” the Captain barked.
The executive officer turned with a start, surprised to see the Captain back on the bridge so soon. He nodded to the wheelman and attempted to cover his surprise by coughing into his hand.
“All day hands ready, and she’s under weigh smartly, Captain,” Halran replied. “There was a strange report just now from Observation, but I haven’t yet had the chance to relay it to you, sir. I wouldn’t have believed the man had I not seen it myself, but-”
“The Grand Armada is making for our position,” the Captain finished for him. “I’ve already received word and relayed it to Rear-Admiral Tavish. I want Observation to await orders from the Iconoclast. The 5th fleet is to hold here, then fall into formation once Admiral Rhaegir arrives with the other fleets.”
The Captain had to admit, he was impressed with how well his second in command managed to hide his surprise the second time around.
“Rhaegir?” Halran asked, his expression shrewd. “Admiral Rhaegir’s a Board Admiral. Why is he out here assuming command in the field? Last I heard, he was permanently stationed aboard Skyhold Arctir with the rest of Command. What exactly is going on, Captain?”
The bloody end, my friend, thought Captain Wrightland. He mentally pushed the quip aside, and nodded toward the comm-port that connected the bridge with the network of communication wires that webbed the innards of the ship.
“You’re about to find out, X.O.” Wrightland sighed. He turned to the Comm station and nodded. “Ship-wide broadcast, Ensign.”
The officer set to flipping switches across the miniature forest of them that made up his control board—turning other dials and widgets that only the Gods knew what they really did—and signaled that all was ready. The great Arcana of Calopa be damned. Anyone who knew how to operate communications devices like this Ensign were the real magicians.
Captain Wrightland took a deep, calming breath, and began speaking in a strong, resonant voice of command into the comm-port.
“This is Captain Arlen Wrightland, under authority of the Azure Admiralty Command Board, by right of Selection and will of the Gods, commanding officer of the AAV Triumphant, DCD-A.”
He could hear a few gasps and confused muttering from the other crew on the bridge. Such formality in address was only used in court, at the pronouncement of promotion, or dedication of a new vessel. Little did the under-officers know that such formality was also used in the pronouncement of a death sentence of an officer by the highest court of the Admiralty tribunal. It was an old law from a simpler time, but it suited the situation. Formality, regulation, and discipline were all that were left in the world, now.
“As some of you may be aware, we are soon to be joined by the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th fleets of the Grand Aeronaut Armada. This is an unprecedented measure, but our mission today is an unprecedented act worthy of such measures.
“By order of the AAC, we are to join 5th fleet to the Armada, where we will then track, verify, and assault our given target in force. We are to give no quarter, nor take prisoners or material. Our objective is complete neutralization and confirmation of destruction. Admiral Rhaegir will be assuming direct command of the entire Armada.”
The Captain paused a moment. It was not necessarily against protocol to reveal more, but it was certainly frowned upon by senior officers.
To the Hells with judgmental superiors. His sailors deserved to know what they had been ordered into.
“Our target is the aerostat construct known as the Golden Aegis.”
The Captain took a moment to look at the faces of the men and women around him on that silent bridge. A few had lost all color. Some looked ready to be ill. Others simply stared. But all stood ready to carry out this madness; to follow the wrong man into the absolutely wrong place, and pray that it was for the right reasons.
“All hands to battle-stations. We are now at full alert condition.” The Captain took another calming breath, and added, “And may the Gods give gentle skies, and welcoming earth.”
He heard the prayer echoed among the under-officers on the bridge, and was surprised to hear Halran repeat the catechism. Seltish were stubbornly monotheistic, but perhaps his executive officer was hedging his bets today. Captain Wrightland could hardly blame him.
The bridge then exploded into a maelstrom of orders being shouted into comm tubes, runners being summoned to relay messages, and signals being given to the deck crews through the large windows at the head of the bridge. A series of sharp horn blasts rang out from multiple points on the ship. Three sharp blasts. Prepare for enemy contact. They echoed off into the clouds with the funereal sound of finality.
Lieutenant-Commander Halran had already made the trip across the bridge to the outlet connecting to the forward observation post and back, and was approaching at a quick step.
“Captain, Observation reports that the 3rd Fleet is within confirmation range, and signaling to the Resolute that the Joyous Hymn will be pulling alongside,” said Halran.
Captain Wrightland nodded and waved to the Officer of the Watch to approach.
“That will be Rhaegir, then,” Wrightland replied, barely hiding his disgust. “He’ll be transferring aboard the Resolute. The man’s ego won’t allow him to issue orders from aboard a paltry battleship if he can do so from the bridge of a Dreadnought.”
The Captain turned to the Officer of the Watch. “Pass the word along. I want guards on all main entrances to sensitive areas. No one is to pass without my expressed authorization. I won’t leave anything to chance with our target or her crew.”
The Officer of the Watch saluted, and ran to obey. From across the bridge, the Comm-station Ensign was waving frantically. The Captain strode over to the Ensign’s station and leaned close.
“Sir,” he spluttered, his hands shaking on the controls. “Sir, the Admiral’s ordering all fleets into a delta formation, staggered altitude. Enemy ship silhouette spotted two-hundred clicks ahead at thirteen degrees off of port bow. All ships to fall into formation at one-quarter speed.”
The Captain nodded and turned to the helmsman, who was already readying the Triumphant by easing her into the turn to match the rest of the armada.
“Delta, come to Resolute’s aft at point two-five, minus fifty meters of elevation. I want our flyers to have a clear road under her line of fire. Signal Engineering to have all rooms and members ready for corrections on the fly when we close with the target.”
The ship leaned gently into the turn, and the shadow of Resolute’s massive bulk swept over the bridge for a moment before Triumphant leveled out. The Dreadnought was three times the size of their carrier, and bristling with the largest guns ever to come out of Calopa’s foundries. The crew could not help but feel at least a touch calmer with such an impressive vessel taking the lead.
The Comm-station Ensign had come out of his chair and laid a hand on the Captain’s arm. “Sir, there’s more. The Admiral’s ordered 6th Aeronautic to the fore.”
The Captain stared open mouthed for a moment. “Are… Ensign are you quite sure of that order?” he asked.
The ensign nodded and pointed to his control board, which was lighting up in a dizzying display, small bulbs blinked and stuttered and vied for attention with alerts from radio, wireless telegraph, and reports from lookouts taking in signals from other snips delivered by flags.
The Ensign suddenly pried one of the cups of his headphones away from his ear with a wince, and the Captain could hear the crackle and hiss of static muddied with dozens of voices.
The junior officer nodded frantically. “Sir, it’s confirmed thrice over. Admiral Rhaegir’s ordered the 6th fleet to spearhead the formation and close with the enemy ahead of the armada.”
The Captain reigned in his fury and turned to his X.O. The Lieutenant-commander was not as generous as the Captain was in his reaction.
Halran snarled. “The fool’s already launching a formation for a fixed target on a moving ship and flying in the face of strategy a toddler could understand, and he is leading his thrust with the support and mechanic fleet? Sweet One-God, what is he playing at?”
The 6th Aeronautic was the workhorse of the Admiralty, tending to all repairs and upgrade jobs on the sea, air, and land over Calopa for the Admiralty’s interests. At best, their collective armament amounted to less than a single battleship in any one of the other fleets, and they had been ordered into the vanguard position. They didn’t even have a single Destroyer flying with them.
What was Admiral Rhaegir doing?
Turning on his heel, the Captain leaned close to the Comm-station Ensign and whispered.
“I want you to relay a message to Rear-Admiral Tavish, short-wave to his Watch-station directly. The Resolute’s Officer of the Watch will handle the rest. Relay exactly: Johan, what is our horse in this race?”
If the message confused the Ensign, he showed no sign of it as he twirled the dials with almost mechanical dexterity and spoke the message twice. There was nothing to do but wait for the Commander of 5th fleet to get the message and, hopefully, to reply.
Arlen Wrightland pulled out an old and decidedly sorry-looking pocket-watch from his coat pocket. Though faded, one could still make out the engraving of the standard bore by the first ship he had served upon. That cargo ship had been decommissioned long ago, but its crew had remained here and there throughout the Admiralty. Mostly.
He flipped the watch and noted the time; 0900 AS. Time was flying, and the morning would soon be a memory.
Come on, Johan, the Captain thought. Get the message. Get back to me. Rhaegir’s set our course for destruction. Tell me what’s going on, old friend.
“Captain!” the cry cut through the operational din of the bridge and snapped Wrightland out of his thoughts. He strode across the gleaming inlaid floor to the forward windows, where the bridge-lookout petty officer was waiting, his face ashen and drawn.
The young man’s tongue was tripping over his words.
“Th-the enemy sh-ship, sir…”
The Captain laid a hand on the man’s shoulder and squeezed.
“Steady man. Hand me that glass,” Wrightland said evenly.
The petty officer handed over his spyglass with shaking hands, and began taking deep breaths to calm himself. He was visibly terrified, and one look through the glass showed the Captain why.
There, on the horizon, seemingly wearing a thunderstorm for a cloak, loomed the Golden Aegis. It outstripped even an Admiralty Dreadnought for sheer size and bulk easily by ten times, if not more, and dwarfed the proud Skyholds of Calopa as a mountain might ridicule a hill. Lightning from the storm—a storm generated by the simple act of the mechanical leviathan’s cutting through the air—glinted and flashed bright blue and violent green off of the behemoth’s strange angles and smooth and apparently seamless outer hull, all gold and silver and alien.
It dominated the view of the bridge, and made the sky seem to shrink and grow cramped just by being. Great engines, like the massive fans on their sides that kept the Skyholds aloft, lined all sides of the construct, and storm clouds met their ends in those blades only to be formed anew and more vicious for the inconvenience on the other side.
The Armada was approaching broadside, and the Captain could just barely see the outline of the ship’s figurehead: a sculpture of a robed woman bearing a great shield and scales. He knew that woman was as long as Triumphant itself. They were still leagues off, yet even now the enemy ship was beginning to blot out the rising sun, as though denying them a last glimpse of daylight.
No exterior tanks or even semi-rigid gas-sacs could be seen; no sign of structural or defensive weakness to be exploited. It was said that the ship was the ultimate expression of Absalohm’s ingenuity, and Captain Wrightland fervently believed it. The Golden Aegis could fly farther and higher than anything ever produced, and she plied that advantage to the ruin of millions.
There may yet be time to salvage this fiasco.
Answer, Johan. Gods damn it all, answer before Rhaegir’s stupidity kills us!
“Message from the Resolute’s Officer of the Watch, sir!” the Ensign yelled.
Gods be good, finally, Wrightland thought. He returned to the Comm-station. The Ensign handed over a scrap of paper, upon which he had hastily scrawled the Rear-Admiral’s reply:
RHAEGIR NOT TAKING BETS ON THE SURE STEED. CAN NOT PLACE MY OWN. BOOKIES CLOSED. MIND THE LINEUP, AND WAGER HOW YOU WILL.
Wrightland couldn’t help by laugh ruefully. The Rear-Admiral and he had long taken to miring their coded messages in racing terminology as a friendly in-joke, as each had a love for the sport, but this message was hardly encouraging. That Rhaegir was refusing to take advice was a given; the man had not become a Board Admiral by being a humble soul. It was his command, and his glory. It seemed as though Johan had pressed his luck, and had most likely been threatened by the blowhard with confinement to his quarters, or even the brig.
What’s more, Johan was telling the Captain that he was well and truly on his own, and to do the best he could with whatever happened next. So be it.
“Time to weapons range, X.O.?” Wrightland asked, pocketing the message and turning to Halran.
The Lieutenant-Commander conferred with the helmsman. “Five minutes to the long guns aboard the Resolute and three minutes after for the Apogee and Valiant Act, sir. 6th fleet will be within recorded range of Golden Aegis’ weaponry one minute prior.”
The pocket watch in the Captain’s hand ticked away. The 6th fleet would be without proper support for an entire sixty seconds. More than enough time for that floating abomination ahead to tear them to flaming shreds.
Wrightland nodded, and barked the order at the weapons station. “Range the enemy ship. She’s flying lower than she’s capable of, and I want to know why. Navigation, are there any towns below?”
Another Ensign shook her head. “A few outlying steads, sir, but nothing with a sizable population for at least fifty clicks in any direction.
Small favors, and kind skies, Wrightland thought.
At least there wasn’t a dense grouping of citizens below that would be caught in between the Admiralty’s hammer and the anvil of the Golden Aegis. Though Captain Wrightland thought it hilarious that Rhaegir most likely believed himself to be the hammer strong enough to shatter that anvil. Five minutes to range, now. Four minutes until the 6th Fleet faced the Aegis alone and outgunned.
“Sir! Orders from the Resolute,” the Comm-station officer yelled. “All aft fleets to adjust heading to swing wide and approach target to gun range port-side in a loose arc. 6th fleet to one-half speed on present heading.”
“What in all variations of Hell is the Admiral doing?!” The Lieutenant-Commander cried as he rushed forward. “Captain, this is ridiculous. That puts our Dreadnoughts and all gunships even further behind the time of contact. 6th Fleet is going to get slaughtered if we don’t do something!”
The Captain seemed to ignore his X.O.’s inappropriate outburst and looked to his Navigation officer. Orders to obey.
Captain Wrightland quietly asked, “Time to range of our fliers?”
“At present course change, two minutes, sir.” she replied.
Time to wager how I will. I hope you’re right, Johan.
“X.O., order the flight deck to standby. I want the flight line ready to drop and deploy on my order. Helmsman, maintain new heading, adjust speed to keep pace.”
Lieutenant-Commander Halran smiled and saluted before rounding on the Comm Ensign and relaying the command. He understood; the Captain wouldn’t leave 6th fleet completely without protection, even if it was just the Triumphant’s small compliment of aircraft.
And they sailed on; the dimly-lit shapes of the airships of the 6th fleet slowly closed the gap between them and the metallic menace beyond. Seconds ticked by in silence. The crew awaited Wrightland’s orders. He, in turn, awaited the first salvo that was sure to erupt from the Golden Aegis any moment. All seemed afraid to breathe in that stretching quiet, with only the creak of plating and the hum of the engines for company.
The lead ships closed, and still there was no response from the enemy flagship.
“Launch the first wing,” Wrightland commanded. “They’re to fly formation on the lead ship.”
From below came the sound of churning gears and the hiss of pistons as the fore flight section was raised into position. Six gyrocopters sat ready, blades already gaining blurring speed. Hand signals flashed between pilots and deck crew, lines were loosed, and the flight lifted from the deck and forward into the sky like downy feathers caught on the breeze.
Wrightland ordered the next flight prepared. It was a half-measure, given that the small craft carried only light munitions, but it would have to do for now.
The Captain noticed a rather haggard-looking sailor being barred at the bridge door by the guards. Arlen ordered them to stand aside and let the man through, and the sailor managed a sloppy salute as he fought to catch his breath. His uniform was smeared with dust and soot, and the lapel pin marked him as aft cargo crew. That was an arduous journey from practically one end of the ship to the other, and he looked as if he had done it at a full sprint. The Captain returned the salute and bade him to report.
“Sir … I … know it might not be … the best time, but … I have that report on the … the manifest incon- … inconsistency.” the sailor managed to choke out.
“Captain, Resolute is ordering us to full speed. We’re to match pace alongside 6th Fleet. Carriers from 1st and 2nd are to do likewise, along with other ships from 4th. Carriers have been ordered to launch small-craft,” the Comm Ensign said.
So, Rhaegir was at least intelligent enough to give the 6th fleet some Carrier support, after all. That or the good Admiral had taken the Triumphant’s maneuver as an example. He’d likely take credit for that, should they all survive.
The order was given, and Triumphant’s engines grew louder as the ship increased speed to reach the position of the ships ahead.
From behind, they could hear the distant reports of cannon fire. The first of the three Dreadnoughts of the Armada had finally reached long weapons range. Resolute was unleashing it’s fury. The bridge crew watched, and waited. Seconds later, tiny points of fire and flak erupted along the giant hull of the Golden Aegis. It was like watching gnats attempt to ram a brick wall; the shining shell of the enemy ship seemed completely unharmed.
The distant crackle of cannons caught up with them, and again useless spurs of flame and debris erupted on the enemy vessel.
Captain Wrightland’s head whipped around to confirm with the Ensign, but the sailor from aft cargo pressed on, his speech halted by laboring breath and coughing.
“Sir … there’s … there’s a problem with the books. Our … our numbers are wrong from … where they should be after we made port at Skyhold Yumaer. We’re … running heavier than we should be, Captain.”
The Comm-Ensign shouted once more. “We’re thirty seconds from 6th fleet, sir, adjusting speed to come alongside.”
The ragged sailor rushed on. “Captain … we’re several kilotons over our scheduled weight. The Cargo Officer is barring inspection and-”
Another volley of fire from the Armada blossomed on the enemy’s hull. The other gunships had at last caught up to the fight. They too, were proving ineffective, just as with every other engagement with the Golden Aegis before. The ships ahead were just lucky to have Arithnomancers directing accurate fire from their rear.
“Closing on enemy ship, sir. Remaining Armada is arcing out aft, and Resolute is taking the center of the line. All gunships in range and engaging,” said the Ensign
The sailor raised his voice to be heard over the din and continued. “-and has guards from Yumaer and an unknown Arithnomancer guarding a series of crates that I don’t recall us taking aboard, sir.”
Wrightland blinked and turned his full attention back to the exhausted and filthy sailor. He opened his mouth to ask a question of him.
And that is when Captain Wrightland saw the first of the door guards raise his machine-pistol and take aim at him.
Without thinking, the Captain grabbed the haggard sailor and bulled him down to the deck, just as he heard the crack of the pistol discharging, and a lance of fire scored his left shoulder. Before he could even yell ”Gun!”, he was assailed by the sharp reports of return gunfire, coming seemingly from everywhere. Thunder roared from without and within the ship.
It was over in a second, and Captain Wrightland checked the man beneath him. Unconscious, but alive. He dared to raise his head, and was greeted with the sight of Halran and the Navigation Ensign standing over him, their side arms out and gun-smoke slithering around them.
“Secure those guards’ side arms!” Halran ordered, offering a hand to the Captain.
The Captain was hauled to his feet, and he examined the hatch. The bodies of the two guards lay there, flecks of blood dotting the bulkhead behind them. Two of the bridge crew were already checking them over.
“Captain, you’re hit,” Halran grinned, examining Wrightland’s shoulder. “You know, they might make you an Admiral for that, given your luck.”
“It’s fine for now, and thank you for your concern,” the Captain replied dryly. “I want to know what in all the Hells happened here, and why my bridge-guard just decided to make an attempt on my life.”
Halran holstered his weapon and nodded. “I’ll see to-”
A tremendous clap of sound slapped the ship, and everyone turned their gaze to the enemy vessel.
The roar came again. The storm clouds around the Golden Aegis pulsed in response to it, drifting out before being sucked back in by the displaced air. It was a force, an act of nature in and of itself, and it was coming from the enemy ship.
The Golden Aegis seemed to have finally awoken to the annoying pinpricks it was receiving from the Armada.
Small orbs of crackling light shot out from innumerable points along her hull, like a dandelion shedding seeds. The orbs wafted in the breeze for a moment, and then raced out in stomach-churning flight patterns; they spiraled and corkscrewed and rocketed overhead with blinding speed. The orbs completely shot past the 6th fleet and her convoy, opting instead to fly at the rest of the Armada’s battle line. The bridge crew could not see what effect, or what purpose the orbs intended.
Stay on target. Protect your crew, Wrightland.
The Captain could not help but wonder at the display. What was Absalohm playing at? Where were the feared batteries of cannon and arc-lightning guns that he had used in the past? Where were the reality-warping bursts of energy that had decimated entire cities? For that matter, why was the Golden Aegis otherwise silent in its defense? There were no other signs that her crew was at their stations at all. It was all too strange.
The noise grew and pounded at Wrightland’s ears from without and within. His shoulder burned like mad, and he could feel blood running down his forearm.
Captain Wrightland felt like the center of the storm as the conversation and orders intermingled. Halran was ordering a list of any new personnel that had just come aboard in the past month. Others were casting furtive glances around, as if trying to preempt the next mutinous assassin that might show themselves. The preternatural whine of the strange orbs struggled for dominance over the roar of cannons and the explosion of ordinance.
The Captain closed his eyes, trying simply to focus on his own task; his own crew. Do the best you can with what you have, and see them through this madness. Protect the 6th fleet from … and then a creeping realization came to him.
Not a single vessel from 3rd fleet had been called forward. Not one ship from the fleet Rhaegir had traveled out here with, nor the Resolute which he now commanded from had been sailed forward to accompany 6th fleet. Not one.
Captain Wrightland broke into a cold sweat at the sheer horror of what Rhaegir was attempting dawned on him. The unlisted cargo and crew. The new guards that were willing to shoot at command officers. The careful placement of the fleet that kept key high ranking personnel out of harm’s way.
“Ten seconds to point of contact sir. Resolute is ordering all ships supporting 6th fleet to full speed!” yelled the Comm-Ensign.
“BELAY THAT ORDER!” Wrightland roared.
The bridge fell silent.
Every eye in the room was locked onto the Captain. Captain Wrightland followed orders and regulations to the final degree. He could imagine their thoughts at this moment. Was he mad? Was this a mutiny? What would drive Captain Arlen Wrightland to insubordination? Did the murderous guards know something they did not, and had simply acted to avert such treachery?
The Captain turned and bellowed, “Halran, take the Officer’s Deck guards and every able-bodied and armed person who is not new personnel with you to aft cargo! Secure those undocumented containers and detain their entourage! If the cargo officer or that Arithnomancer so much as blink at you without permission, you are to shoot to kill!”
The Lieutenant-Commander looked hesitant. “Sir, what-”
The Captain grabbed him by the arms and shook the second-in-command.
“You have to trust me, Halran,” Wrightland pleaded. “We’ve been played false, and there’s no time. Helmsman! Order full-reverse and get our Arithnomancers ready for evasive maneuvers. Comm! I want you to relay on all channels and flags; belay order from Resolute. I am activating Admiralty officer protocol twenty-six. All ships are to fall back and-”
“I can’t get anything through, sir,” the Comm-Ensign said, a look of horror passing across his face. “All lines out are dead, and I can’t raise our communication center. Our flagmen are signaling a blackout; the other ships are unable to respond either, sir.”
Of course. Rely on unknowing officers to carry out this madness, and place handpicked crew aboard to make sure the blinders were firmly in place, and to take over the ship itself if necessary to keep it on target.
The Captain swore aloud, and pointed at the helmsman. “Belay last. I want you to flag-signal to the tanks engineering that I need as much agility as the old girl can muster, and get our Arithnomancers working. Secure all flyers and decks. Helm! Full speed! I want you to cut across the lead ship’s bow. Decapitate her figurehead, if you must! We’ll make them turn!”
For his part, Wrightland was floored by the helmsman’s calm as he set to his work. Triumphant shuddered as she turned to the right, and gained speed. The crew leaned with the deck as the ship tilted more, and more, and more still. Some cried out as they feared the ship would capsize, and loud protesting shrieks of strained metal rattled out of the very walls, while Triumphant endured stresses she was never designed for. The Captain offered a silent prayer that the Arithnomancers were on their top game today, and could hold the ship together.
After what seemed like a terrifying eternity, the ship righted herself and the Captain could see the lead ship of the 6th fleet flash by in a blur as Triumphant cut across her path within feet of her bow. The passing wake rattled the large windows and knocked some of the bridge crew to the deck.
“Sir! She’s turning, sir! Some of the other ships are following suit!” cried the bridge lookout.
“Do we have any lines up in this ship, Comm?” the Captain complained.
“Sir, just the announcement tubes fore and aft,” came the reply.
The Captain nodded and leaned close to the brass funnel that lead into the old speaking tubes, which were outdated but would still amplify one’s voice for section announcements.
“That’s all I need. “Halran! Halran if you’re there, the inner ship comms are still up. I want a report!”
After a few seconds of agonizing silence, the distant echoing voice of his Executive Officer replied.
“Sir! Cargo secured. I can’t make out the contents precisely, sir, but even though the tech is well above my pay-grade, I know explosives when I see them.”
The Captain would have allowed himself a sigh of relief, if he wasn’t furious at being right about this insane plan Rhaegir had set them to. It would appear that the Admiralty’s, or at least Rhaegir’s desperation was such that they were willing not only to sacrifice innocent civilians on the ground, but to murder their own sailors as well, so long as Absalohm died in the crossfire.
“And the cargo’s caretakers?” Wrightland asked.
“In custody. Two casualties,” Lieutenant-Commander Halran replied. “I’m afraid they blinked, Sir.”
The Captain smiled grimly. He had no love for conspirators, orders or no. “Have guards escort them to the brig. I want you and your strike team to secure our communications control room next. We need to get the signal out to the rest of our-”
“Sir!” came a shout from the head of the bridge.
Captain Wrightland spun from the speaking tube to see the bridge lookout pointing out of the starboard-side window frantically.
“Sir! The other ships!”
The Captain rushed over to the railing before the huge window and stared aghast. Not all of the ships had turned with the lead ship they had cut off. The Captain watched helplessly as nearly a hundred vessels continued onward toward the Golden Aegis, undaunted. They had not realized the treachery, or more likely, they were already compromised.
“Oh Gods,” the Captain whispered. “Helmsman! Full speed toward the Resolute and the Armada line! Comm! Keep trying to raise the other ships, and keep our flagmen signaling. All forward ships are sabotaged to blow; they are trying to use us as bombs against-”
But it was too late, and Captain Arlen Wrightland could only hold on with the others as Triumphant made yet another wrenching turn and flew hell-for-leather towards the Armada’s rear battle-line. Behind, the doomed ships began crashing into the hull of the Golden Aegis, each punctuated by a blinding flash of brilliant light, followed by a roar of sound that violently rocked Triumphant to and fro. It was all they could do to keep sitting upright at their stations, let alone make sense of what was happening.
Boom. Bolts snapped and rocketed about the bridge.
Boom. Pipes rippled like water and then snapped, showering sparks and slivers of copper.
Boom. The large reinforced windows bowed and flexed, and cracks lanced through with the sound of gunshots. Boom. Every explosion, every ship, every crew lost in a ball of fire assaulted Triumphant.
Boom. Boom. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.
Crew screamed and cannons roared; more of those strange crackling orbs tore through the forward ships now, seemingly ripping whatever they touched out of reality without so much as an explosion or debris; the very deck buckled and rippled, sliding the dead and living about like dolls. The sound split reality, and the world thrashed about. Arlen saw one of the forward windows give way in an explosion of glass shards that glittered like diamonds, and then the deck heaved up to meet him.
Then, but for the morning wind, silence.
Seconds passed, then a minute. Arlen was flat on his back, gazing up at the ceiling, and willing the shrill ringing to leave his ears and the searing agony to leave his limbs. He could not say with any confidence at that moment whether he was alive, or dead and already subject to the ministrations of the damned.
Finally, reality asserted itself, the Captain pulled himself slowly to his feet, and looked through the distorted and crack-riddled windows still standing in their frames.
Triumphant had come to a stop, bobbing drunkenly on the winds. She listed heavily to port, and the Captain leaned against the off-kilter deck. Outside, smoke and embers danced, blurring out parts of Triumphant. Surveying the bridge, the Captain watched as crew helped others to their feet, or cried out for the Theurgists to render healing to the less fortunate. All around, the bridge was littered with the broken, the ruined, and the worn. Nothing gleamed, now.
Captain Wrightland clutched his now-useless left arm, and ignored the pat-pat-pat of his own blood hitting the deck. His throat was dry, and raw, and he would have gladly traded his ship, or any desk job in the world, for a simple glass of water.
First things first. See to your crew, old man, he thought.
Coughing, the Captain finally found his voice. “Report.”
The Comm Ensign looked up from the sparking ruin of his control board, and stared, his face slack and eyes unfocused.
The Captain limped closer and grunted. “Damn your eyes, Ensign- status, NOW!”
The under-officer snapped to attention, slapped out of his shock. “S-sir. No reports from the Armada yet. I have been unable to raise-”
Snarling, the Captain kicked a pile of wiring and kindling out of his path. “Status of our ship and the enemy, Ensign!”
The Ensign took an involuntary step back at the Captain’s tone. “S-sir … everything’s down communication wise. I wouldn’t even know …” He paused a moment, as a fresh messaged thumped through the pneumatic tubes before coming to a stop in the collection port. He quickly read it before turning back to Wrightland.
“Sir, a runner reports that we’ve multiple hull breaches, and are down to propellers only for thrust. The deck housing the communication center was hit the worst. Lieutenant-Commander Halran … I’m sorry, Captain.”
Captain Wrightland took a deep, calming breath, and nodded, too shocked to really take in the news.
“As you were, Ensign. It’s not your fault,” Wrightland sighed. He turned to the bridge-lookout, who was already standing and at his post. “Petty officer, can you see out well enough to give me a bearing on the enemy, or any of the fleet?”
The lookout nodded and raised his spyglass. The man had blood running down his face in rivulets, yet still stood to his post. It was a wonder.
After a few moments, he lowered his glass and nodded to Captain Wrightland. “Sir, I’m getting flag signals from at least five vessels in range. Several are dead in the air, and others are reporting heavy losses across the board, forward and aft, sir.”
Madness, desperation, and utter ruin.
The Captain sighed. “And what of the Aegis, lookout? What heading is she currently on?”
The petty officer shook his head, sagging with what could have easily been exhaustion, or complete relief. “Sir… the enemy vessel is gone. I’ve signals from the Stalwart Endeavor and the Indomitable that the vessel launched escape pods before … they just speak of a tremendous explosion, sir. No sign of her in the sky at all points, and that damnable storm she was crafting is breaking up.”
It hit him like a ground tremor, and Captain Wrightland suddenly felt very old, very weak, and miserably tired.
“I-” Wrightland paused, and regained his composure. Regulations would be followed. “Work with the Arithnomancers. We need trajectories on those pods, and coordinates to pass along to the rest of the Armada.”
The Captain took a moment, looking down at the pocket watch still in his hand, clutched throughout the chaos. Its face was cracked, and its hands were frozen in time. Worthless.
“I want repairs made,” Wrightland continued, “and then lend assistance to what ships remain aloft. Damage assessment and casualty list of all personnel, materiel, and ships to me within the hour.”
The Captain turned to leave, but the lookout called to him. “Sir, I have one report now, if it pleases. The Resolute … sir she’s been sunk. No apparent survivors.”
The Captain simply nodded, and without a word he walked off the flotsam-choked wreck of his ship’s bridge. Johan’s wager had not played out for the Rear-Admiral, or any aboard the Resolute. Wrightland’s own bet had cost him his friend and executive-officer, and still more crew to be reported.
It had nearly cost him the Triumphant. Nearly.
It was the best he could do, and that the ship remained at all was at least something. The Captain moved through cramped corridors and past countless ladders. He didn’t truly see anything that registered along his way, nor had a particular destination in mind. Steam and sparks hissed and flashed out of cracked and rent pipe work. Bulkheads were bowed inward as if they had been made of warm wax. Wooden paneling hung off of their framing at drunken angles. He didn’t truly see any of it. His feet carried him forward, past a hundred little signs of damage and injury, and by the time he realized where he was going, he was already back in his cabin, sitting at his desk.
Finally, he was at a desk.
Captain Arlen Wrightland put his head in his hands, and wept. Outside, the morning surrendered to the remains of the day.
From The Lexicon Calopa, ©2016 Xero Reynolds