Last year, we brought you an excerpt from The Daedalus Incident by Michael J. Martinez, where an 18th century frigate did battle around Mercury. Now here's an excerpt from the sequel, The Enceladus Crisis. The HMS Fortitude sails into the asteroid belt, chasing a French vessel heading for Saturn, perhaps with the Count St. Germain aboard.
Sept. 15, 1798
"These sails, Captain, they are treated with the typical admixture of mercury, sulfur and goldenrod, yes?" the young man – little more than an older boy, really – asked the captain of HMS Fortitude as they stood on the quarterdeck, admiring the view of the Rocky Main as the ship carefully picked its way through the boulder-islands.
Weatherby smiled at the boy, remembering the curiosity of his mother, so many years ago. "I cannot say what is typical or not, Philip. You already know more of alchemy than I've the patience or ability to learn," the captain replied. "Perhaps Dr. Hawkins might oblige you with an answer."
The boy looked up at Weatherby and gave a bemused smile, quite similar to the one his mother often wore. "Dr. Hawkins is often busy with his duties, sir. I don't think he particularly likes company, nor many questions."
Weatherby barked a short laugh. "No, I dare say he does not. But he's a good man. I'll have him make time for your questions soon enough, Philip."
To be fair, Philip Thomas St. Germain was not ill-mannered, especially considering the typical curiosity and rambunctiousness of most 13-year-olds. Indeed, he seemed to have inherited the best of both his parents – his father's self-possession and rigor and his mother's compassion and gentle humor. The intellectual acuity and prowess, Weatherby reasoned, was a toss-up between the two, or perhaps even greater than the sum, which would be formidable indeed.
As for the boy's mother, Weatherby found himself intrigued and entranced all over again, despite his initial attempts at showing remove and resolve. It did not help, of course, that she was just as beautiful as he remembered, perhaps even moreso. Gone were the last vestiges of adolescence, but otherwise the tide of time was forestalled in her face and form. Intellectually, Weatherby knew that the Count St. Germain had unlocked many secrets to longevity and health, and the hale man he had met in '79 was, by then, well into his 60s but looked no more than 40. But to see Anne there, in the full flower of youthful womanhood…it was something for which he was wholly unprepared.
Weatherby's looking glass was somewhat less kind. The scar across his cheek – gained over Mars during those fateful days – never fully healed, and a life in service to His Majesty's Navy had left a slightly crooked nose and a few more scars upon his weather-beaten face. Yet Weatherby liked to think that responsibility and command suited him well, and that his bearing had grown with his confidence. That is what his late wife, at least, told him, and he was more inclined to believe her now than when she was alive, may God rest her soul.
"Good day, Captain," Anne said as she climbed the stairs of the quarterdeck, her marine guard in tow. A formidable alchemist, yes, but she was still the only woman on a ship with 600 men aboard, at least half of them pressed into service. Hence the armed escort. Ever mindful, Gar'uk appeared with a cup of tea in hand, which Anne accepted gratefully. The valet had been ordered to attend to the needs of Anne and Philip whenever possible – a charge he took so seriously that Weatherby had to remind the Venusian that the captain still needed a valet now and again.
"Countess," Weatherby said by way of greeting. "I trust you continue to find ways of passing the time?"
"Your lodestones belowdecks are well ensorcelled, though a touch more elemental fire may be required once past Jupiter," she said simply. "And it smells to High Heaven down there. How you put up with such rancid odors, I cannot say."
Weatherby's smile was genuine; part of him worried the crew would begin to talk. "I shall communicate your recommendation to Dr. Hawkins when next he reports," the captain said. "As for the odor, I'm sorry to say there's little to be done for it."
Anne grimaced slightly. "I'm afraid I may have already offended Dr. Hawkins," she said. "I tried to show him a few new procedures to improve upon the workings in his manuals, but I think I may have unduly upset him."
Weatherby could readily see the two clashing. While Anne looked merely 25 years old, she was in her late 30s, and her tongue was stayed for no man. And if that man was the overly sensitive ship's alchemist…. "I'm sure Dr. Hawkins will be quite fine. Eventually."
The two shared a secret smile. It was all too easy to pretend that the years were never spent away, though Weatherby knew that Anne was married now, and to the most renowned master of the mystic sciences in all Earth's history. A ship's captain was far less a prize than that.
"You didn't mention you had a daughter, Captain," Anne said, with the barest hint of…something…in her voice, something Weatherby could not place. "I could not help but notice the portrait of her upon your table below. How old is she?"
Weatherby felt color seep into his face. "Nearly ten years, now. Elizabeth. Her mother died in childbirth," he said quietly.
Genuine concern and remorse appeared on Anne's face. "I'm sorry, Tom. I didn't mean to pry."
"Not at all, Lady Anne," he said, tempering his mood with a small smile. "Elizabeth is my raison d'etre. I had hoped to see her when the prizes were returned to Portsmouth. She is…well, we all dote upon our children, I suppose. But she is frighteningly intelligent, and full of questions. I cannot help but be reminded of…."
He stopped, catching himself staring into Anne's eyes a bit longer than was entirely appropriate. The fact that she met his gaze for the same amount of time was...well, it was too much. He quickly looked down at his shoes, while she turned to look larboard at the boulder-islands of the Rocky Main.
"Lights spotted!" came a cry from the top of the mainmast. "Two sets, one larboard, one starboard!"
Never was a sighting so welcome as in that wholly uncomfortable moment. Weatherby immediately drew his glass and raised it. There…along the boulder islands massed to the left, was a blinking light. He swiveled right…and saw a light blinking in response.
"Beat to quarters! All hands, prepare for battle!" Weatherby shouted. "Lookouts to their stations right away! Identify those ships at once!"
He then turned to Anne, who had immediately taken charge of Philip. "Anne, I need you to go…." He stopped, looked at her, and saw the gleam of readied anger in her eye. If it were any other woman and child, they would be sent to the bowels of the ship for relative safety. He could instantly see this would not stand. "Report to Dr. Hawkins and assist as you are able."
She flashed him a winning smile. "You've a fine memory, Captain. Come, Philip. We've work to do," she said, handing her teacup to Gar'uk and hustling back down the stairs toward the ship's forecastle, where the alchemy lab was housed.
"Sir, might I suggest that the fo'c'sle isn't the safest place for a woman?" Lt. Barnes said quietly from over his shoulder.
Weatherby turned and smiled. "If you wish, you may go and try to convince her, Mr. Barnes. Then go and wrestle a Martian sand beast whilst you're on about it."
The second lieutenant smiled. "I understand, sir. Lookouts will be in place momentarily. We're also checking beneath and behind as well."
That gave Weatherby an idea, and he quickly rushed over to the map table, where the chaos of the Rocky Main was charted out. An orrery of the thousands of boulder-islands in the Main was hardly feasible, but there were somewhat stable routes mapped through them. "Where are we, Mr. Barnes?"
"Here, sir," he said, pointing to a relatively clear point on the chart. "I imagine the lights we've seen are coming from this cluster of stone here, and this one ahead to starboard. Perhaps pirates, sir. They'll likely turn tail and run soon as they see us."
"Perhaps," Weatherby allowed. "But the French do a brisk business between Earth and their Jovian holdings. They may have found some of their fellows to bring to bear against us. I want every gun loaded and ready to fire, if you please, Mr. Barnes."
"Straight on, then, sir?" he asked quietly, trying to gauge Weatherby's intent.
The captain shook his head slightly. "I want each of those ships identified as soon as possible. If one of them is Franklin, I want that ship captured. Otherwise, we shall try to out-race them and make for Saturn with all due haste." Weatherby pointed toward a point toward the starboard cluster of boulder-islands. "We make for these. Full sail, royals and stud'sels, if you please."
Barnes paused a good three seconds, confusion writ upon his face, before giving the necessary orders and course. It was only after that he turned to address his captain once more. "Within the cluster, sir?"
Weatherby gave the man credit for posting his orders first before questioning them. "A gambit, Mr. Barnes. If they're a pair of frigates, then 'tis folly to race them in the clear. We shall even the odds greatly within the cluster, as they will have to slow down or be crushed."
"As will we, sir."
"We shall see about that, Mr. Barnes," Weatherby said, giving his first lieutenant a smile that only deepened the junior officer's frown.
The captain watched as the royals and studding sails were unfurled across the ship, wrapping the Fortitude in a swath of sailcloth. The solar winds filled them almost immediately, and the ship's gain in speed was felt underfoot, prompting Barnes to issue an order for safety lines. A wise course, given what Weatherby had in mind.
"Ship identified! French flag!" came the shout from one of the lookouts. "She's coming straight at us!"
Weatherby nodded; it's what he might have done. If the aggressor were to get off a few lucky shots, Fortitude might be slowed enough for the other enemy ship to join in. At that point, the battle would be in the French's favor.
"Four points to starboard! Ready the larboard guns! Two points up on the planes!" Weatherby shouted. Immediately, the ship turned toward the right, while the guns on the left side of the ship were readied to fire at the oncoming French vessel. Fortitude began a shallow climb higher into the Void, for the higher ground, as it were, would make her broadside count all the more.
The French ship, however, would have none of it. It tacked to follow Fortitude and likewise climbed higher. Lookouts immediately counted forty guns on the enemy ship; a rather large frigate, but no match for Fortitude's seventy-six. Of course, if the frigate's compatriot was likewise armed, the odds would be evened considerably.
Weatherby watched closely as the two ships sped toward one another. Unlike naval combat upon the seas, battle in the Void was a much faster affair. Two vessels would speed past each other and fire quickly, or they would vie to come alongside one another – without colliding, no mean feat in that – to continually exchange blazing alchemical shot. The cluster of boulder-islands now looming ahead only served to complicate matters. And there was the open question of the location of the other French ship.
"The frigate is positioning itself to come up upon our larboard side," Barnes reported, "and we're about to enter the boulder cluster."
Weatherby nodded but said nothing, instead pulling out his glass in order to look ahead. Timing would be critical for the maneuver, as would his calculations. He could only hope there were no large boulders flying freely around inside the cluster. Not, at least, until he passed through.
Barnes stood next to him, fidgeting with his hands and occasionally rising onto the balls of his feet. "Sir," he finally whispered, "they will be on us in no time."
"Thank you, Mr. Barnes," he said. "We just need wait for our opening."
Barnes nodded, then turned to look ahead at the rather larger boulder looming straight ahead of them, and the French frigate coming around their larboard side. "Sir, they're almost in range. Should we –"
"Four points up on the larboard plane! Now!" Weatherby shouted.
The ship immediately curved away from the French frigate, turning to move around the right side of the boulder-island ahead. Weatherby heard shots ring out from the French frigate; they would try to shoot at Fortitude's keel, but the range was still too far for their guns. It was a futile gesture.
"Four points up on the starboard plane!" Weatherby commanded, and soon the ship righted itself, its keel less than three hundred yards from a boulder roughly the size of London. Weatherby turned aft and peered through his glass; the French frigate had given chase.
"Excellent!" Weatherby exclaimed, snapping his glass shut. "Mr. Barnes, set up additional lookouts for the pilot, and go to half sail. We shan't wish to be struck in transit."
Looking mildly exasperated at this point, Barnes nonetheless issued the orders. At half sail, the frigate would be upon them quite quickly, and it was only good fortune that the ship didn't appear to have chase guns.
Weatherby caught his lieutenant's look. "Mr. Barnes, do we have a sighting of the other ship? Unless she's particularly fast, I imagine we'd see her about three points to larboard, two points below horizon." Barnes alerted the lookouts and soon the voices from the tops reported back; Weatherby was off by only a point on either axis. The other French ship – another frigate, this one of thirty-two guns – was on a bearing to intercept the Fortitude in the middle of the cluster.
The captain ordered additional sail – just enough to keep ahead of the speedier frigate behind them – and began poring over the charts again, murmuring minute course corrections to the seaman at the wheel. He would look up, scan the horizon with his glass, then consult the charts and make more corrections.
"Very well, there's nothing more to be done," Weatherby said finally, snapping his glass closed. "Ready all guns to fire broadsides on my command."
"All guns, sir?" Barnes asked. "Even the starboard side?"
"Every gun we have, Mr. Barnes. No alchemical shot needed."
Even more confused, Barnes nonetheless dutifully carried out his orders. Weatherby knew the man was trying his best to comprehend, but simply wasn't arriving at the matter quickly. They would walk through this engagement over a glass of claret later…should they survive.
Even so, Weatherby felt the man deserved something. "Have you ever played at billiards, Mr. Barnes?"
"I'm afraid I haven't, sir," he replied, coming full circle in his confusion so as to simply answer the unexpected question with something approaching equanimity.
"Are you familiar with it?" Weatherby asked.
"Only in passing, sir."
"You should take it up some time, Mr. Barnes. You may find it most illuminating."
"I shall gladly take your advice, sir," the lieutenant noted. "In the meantime, there's our other adversary." The younger officer pointed off to the starboard side. "It appears she's turning to attempt a broadside. Another frigate, roughly thirty-two guns, I should say."
"About time," Weatherby responded. "She's running late. Three points down on the planes, if you please, Mr. Barnes."
The Fortitude dove deeper into the Void, prompting the other two vessels to change course. The ship's pilot swore as he saw a number of boulder-islands on either side of the ship. "'Tis a tight fit, cap'n, sir," the man said. "And I trust you're the man to fit us through," Weatherby said, clapping a hand on the man's shoulder. "Straight on, the tighter the better."
Unlike Barnes, who at least attempted to maintain decorum at all times, the crewman was unsparing in his look of incredulity. "As you say, sir, but this'll be tight enough."
Within moments, boulders began speeding past the ship on either side. Some were small, the size of cannon shot, while others were half again the size of the ship itself. A few pebble-sized pieces of rock started raining down onto the ship's deck, caught by the Fortitude's gravity, which was fueled by the ensorcelled lodestones in the bowels of the ship.
"They're still with us and closing fast, sir," Barnes said. "Almost within range." More quietly, he added: "We're not well positioned to return fire, sir. Suggest we come about to engage?"
Weatherby nodded, then cracked another small smile. "Fire all guns now, Mr. Barnes."
"Sir?" the lieutenant asked, completely bewildered. "We won't hit anything!"
Weatherby strode forward and placed his hands on the quarterdeck rail. "Fire all guns!" he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Immediately – with a reaction time far greater than Barnes had a moment prior – all seventy-four cannons aboard Fortitude fired their shot into the Void.
And at least three-quarters of those shots hit boulder-islands. The iron shot smashed into boulders big and small, near and far. A bare few were smashed entirely, with most of the smaller rocks split in two and sent careening away from each other. The larger rocks – including several half the size of Fortitude herself – likewise spun wildly through the Void after being struck, and went on to strike other boulder-islands, which in turn struck others with the same prodigious force.
"Planes full up!" Weatherby shouted.
With a chorus of creaking wood and groaning lines, Fortitude began a sharp climb out of the boulder cluster….
…leaving a wake of careening boulder-islands in its wake.
Weatherby and Barnes both turned to look aft with their glasses at the two ships now behind them. The Fortitude's cannon fire had prompted a chain of reactions throughout the cluster, sending boulders askew in their paths, bouncing off each other and generally creating a blizzard of speeding stone all around the two frigates. They watched as one of the ships lost a mast in the onslaught, while another already appeared to be on fire, likely from a direct hit into its underbelly, where the powder was stored.
A moment later, that ship burst into flame, while the other worked arduously to clear out of the hail of stone.
Weatherby snapped his glass shut, and turned to Barnes. "Keep the lookouts at their posts, and have the guns reloaded, Mr. Barnes. There may be more of them out there."
"Sir, I…" Barnes began, "I must apologize. I—"
Weatherby nodded and interrupted. "Faster, next time, Mr. Barnes. And in the interim…billiards."
The captain turned and started walking down the stairs toward the main deck, and his cabin, when he was met by Philip St. Germain. "That was amazing, Captain!" the boy exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like it!"
Weatherby couldn't help but smile. "Thank you, young man. But aren't you assigned to assist Dr. Hawkins?"
The boy was immediately flustered. "Well, yes. Sorry, sir."
Weatherby saw Anne walk up behind him. "It's all right, Philip. You're not actually in the Navy," she said with a smile. "Though I will say, the service has proven to be more imaginative than I would have given it credit for, Captain."
"Thank you, Lady Anne," Weatherby said with a slight bow and a smile. "It was not always so."
"No, it wasn't," she replied, with a fair share of weight behind it. "But it's nice to see some adaptability at long last. Come along, Philip. Let's help Dr. Hawkins recover his nerves."
The two turned and walked forward once again, leaving Weatherby feeling less like a victorious captain and more like an eighteen-year-old second lieutenant once more.