Welcome to the next installment of The Gravity of the Affair, the novella set in the historical fantasy setting of The Daedalus Incident. In Part I, posted last week, we were introduced to a young post-captain by the name of Horatio Nelson, in command of the 12-gun brig HMS Badger. Nelson had left Europa in pursuit of another vessel, and we pick up the story with him and his ship in the Void, looking for his quarry.
Turning to his glass, Nelson scanned the horizon, knowing full well that the sharp-eyed lookouts would spot the other vessel first. But it gave him something to do. And now that the Badger was out within the Void, there was much more to see. Jupiter waxed gibbous in this part of the Jovian system, and treated the eye to brilliant ribbons of orange and salmon, along with its famed fiery red eye. To starboard, Io burned like a tiny cinder in the blackness, while Ganymede to starboard was a lovely blue-white spark—one that now burned with the fires of revolution. It was there that thirteen British colonies—more than three quarters of the land held by the Crown on that moon—had rebelled against the rightful authority of the Crown, and word was that the French might involve themselves in the matter, as the French often did when they were unwelcome.
Nelson hoped to see Ganymedean colors upon the vessel he pursued, for that would give him free rein in his course, allowing him to take or destroy the “Ganny” vessel. Were she French, the matter would grow complicated quickly.
Lt. Edwards seemed to have his own mental calculus with regard to their prey. “Captain, a word?” he said, his back to the crew and his voice whispered in Nelson’s ear.
Nelson folded his glass slowly with a faint grimace. He knew what was coming. “Yes, Mr. Edwards?” he said as casually as he could muster.
“Sir, I must reiterate, we’ve no notion of how many guns this ship has,” Edwards said, his voice remaining low. “We know she’s a frigate. That’s at least twenty-two to our twelve. And she could have twenty-eight, maybe even forty. There’s no telling. But I still count only twelve guns on our part. Sir.”
The last “sir” saved Edwards from a stern reprimand, but Nelson remained quite displeased. As inexperienced as he was, Nelson was in command, not Edwards. Indeed, had Edwards proven his mettle aboard other ships previously, perhaps he wouldn’t be serving under a twenty-year-old post-captain.
“As I have explained more than once, Mr. Edwards, our mission is to fully identify this ship. If we have some tactical advantage due to our speed, we may then attempt to slow her down so the rest of the fleet may find her easier pickings when she seeks to make keel-fall upon Ganymede,” Nelson said, his words clipped. “If fortune smiles upon us, we may even take her.”
“But at what risk, sir?” Edwards said, his eyes showing genuine concern.
Nelson smiled grimly. “If you wished to avoid risk, Mr. Edwards, you might have chosen a different vocation in life.” With this, Nelson strode away to inspect the sails, leaving a red-faced, angry subordinate behind. Cruger looked from one man to the other before deciding to follow the captain, quite literally.
Minutes later, the call came down from the tops. “Ship sighted! Three points off the larboard side, four points down the plane!” Nelson snapped open his glass and looked to his left, and slightly downward…there. The ship was still too far away to truly make out her type, let alone her colors, but the sparkling trail of Sun-motes behind her was enough for the moment. Nelson fervently believed they had managed to reacquire the frigate’s trail—but they would have to get closer to find out.
“Set course three points larboard, four points down,” Nelson shouted back toward Edwards, who likewise had his glass out. “I want every sheet full, Mr. Cruger.”
The orders, to Nelson’s surprise, would not be necessary. “She’s coming about!” the lookout cried. “She’s making for us!”
“That makes things easier,” Nelson said. “Mr. Cruger, maintain course and beat to quarters, if you please.” Smiling, Cruger repeated the order at the top of his lungs.
Immediately, the Badger’s bell rang out, and one of the few Marines aboard began tapping out a martial rhythm on his drum. More hands swarmed onto the main deck from below, unlashing the six guns on each side of the ship and preparing them for firing. Runners brought fresh cannon shot to each gun, streaks of paint marking their alchemical properties—red for Greek Fire, white for piercing hulls, green for acidic grape shot for use against sails and enemy crews alike. Nelson opted for the white, as he wanted to capture the other ship, not set her ablaze.
Nelson noticed Cruger’s smile as he relayed this last order. Cruger was perhaps seventeen, and eager to learn his trade in anticipation of sitting for his lieutenant’s exam. He also, apparently, was a new father as well as a new husband, the former coming a bit too quickly upon the heels of the latter. Thus, Nelson considered that the prospect of prize money may have motivated him as well. Regardless, the young man did his duty well, and Nelson’s inspection of the gun crews showed nothing amiss. Cruger commanded the larboard division, while his fellow midshipman, an older man named Edward Capper, commanded the starboard guns. Capper served…adequately, but like Edwards, he was slightly too old to be in such a role on such a ship. And Nelson knew Capper liked his brandy overmuch.
The next five minutes were tensely quiet as the two ships closed over immense distances under the watchful red eye of Jupiter. Ships in the Void, buoyed by the strange alchemy of the Sun-currents, could sail at incredible speeds, but the stars were vast indeed, and it was impossible to judge distances until moments before engagement. Still, it seemed that Forster’s alchemy—a brilliant improvisation pressed upon him by circumstance—was serving Badger well. To Nelson, it seemed the ship handled better and showed even more than her usual grace and speed in the Void.
“Red and white spotted!” cried the lookout. “Stripes! She’s a Ganny!”
“I can’t make her guns, sir,” Capper shouted from the main deck. “She’s coming at us bow first.”
“Very well,” Nelson said, loud enough for the rest of the crew to hear. “She may have fifty guns to our twelve, I care not! She will find this Badger tough prey indeed!”
There was a chorus of cheers from the crew, but even Nelson recognized these were bold words. The Badger would likely be outclassed by even a ship its own size, let alone one much bigger. No doubt the crew knew it as well, but they did seem to respond to him—certainly more so than some of his officers did.
“Mr. Edwards,” Nelson said, joining his second-in-command at the aft of the ship. “I want your best men upon the planes. If we are to make the most of this engagement, we must maneuver quickly around our adversary.”
Edwards frowned. “Sir, with due respect, you don’t really mean to try to take her, do you? We are, if I may say so, quite outclassed here.”
At least Edwards had spoken very quietly again. Nelson responded in kind, but with steel in his voice. “Mr. Edwards, I am fully aware of the disparity between ourselves and the Ganny. I believe we have one, perhaps two, opportunities to rake her and still make good our escape, at which time we can apply full canvas once more and make for Ganymede and Port Royal to report. And if we are indeed fortunate, and our shots land true, then yes, we may yet take her. Now, this is the very last time I expect I shall have to justify myself to you. Is that clear, Mr. Edwards?”
For a moment, it seemed Edwards wished to make a fight of it, but he apparently thought better of it. “Quite clear, sir. Thank you, sir,” he said quietly.
“Very well,” Nelson said, his voice growing louder. “Five points down upon the planes, Mr. Edwards!” The first lieutenant dutifully repeated the order, and for now Nelson was satisfied, though he imagined he and Edwards would revisit the topic in private later. Nelson returned eye to the glass and his mind to the Ganny.
Two areas of an enemy ship were vulnerable in a Void engagement—the stern and the topside. Since they were heading straight for each other, Nelson hoped to quickly rise above the larger, heavier ship, in order to punch down through her maindeck and, hopefully, hit her rudder-sail and planes as well.
“Secure body lines!” Edwards called out, and wisely so. Immediately, the rest of the men —those who were not already in the rigging—started lashing ropes around their waists, preparing for the radical maneuvers that often accompanied battle in the Void. The alchemical lodestones in the Badger’s hold did indeed provide gravity, but they often took a few moments to compensate for steep turns and dips.
Meanwhile, the ships continued to fly toward each other. Unlike battle at sea, Void conflicts were much more like the ancient sport of jousting, in which both ships would rush at each other and fire quickly before speeding past, then turn around in swooping arcs to fire again.
“Stand ready!” Nelson shouted as he made his way back to the quarterdeck, where he might give further instruction to the helmsman. He would have to time his maneuvers perfectly. He gauged the enemy ship’s speed, and his own, against the positions of Jupiter and its moons, and then pulled out a stopwatch to measure time and distance as best he could, though such maneuvers remained more art than science. Thirty seconds later and it was time.
“Up five points on the starboard plane! Left full rudder!” Nelson ordered.
Immediately, the Badger rose higher in the Void and started to rotate onto its side, bringing the larboard battery of guns downward to blast into the enemy’s hull.
Too late, Nelson saw that his enemy was rising as well and attempting the same gambit, which would likely bring the two ships within mere feet of each other—if they were lucky. Otherwise, they might collide.
“Right full rudder!” Nelson cried. The Badger swooped off to the right, continuing its upward trajectory to avoid collision. However, this now meant that the two ships would face each other’s broadsides directly, and the Ganny had at least 14 guns on each side of her.
It was a horrible mismatch. But Nelson felt it was too late to turn back now, as any further maneuver would expose Badger’s stern. “Larboard battery—FIRE!”
Explosions rang out as the two ships fired upon each other. Badger shuddered as several shots slammed into her sides and her upper deck. One of the larboard guns spun off into the Void, along with two gunners, while splinters, blood and the shouts of men filled the air.
And just as quickly as it began, the volley was over.
Nelson whipped around and watched as the Ganny quickly receded into the void. It looked like Badger had managed some fine shots, as there was a noticeably large hole in the Ganny’s aft larboard side, while her mainmast seemed a few points from true. Nelson turned, preparing to order another pass, but was stopped in his tracks by what he saw.
Two other guns on the larboard side had been destroyed, and Nelson could see at least eight men down, two or three of whom were not moving at all. There were three large holes in the bloodstained main deck where the pirate had landed shots, and a few chunks of wood and rope hung in the air above them, marking where the lodestones below were damaged. The mainmast was now listing to starboard, while the larboard plane-sail was in tatters.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Nelson saw Forster clamber up the stairs from the belly of the ship, making his way toward a group of sailors gathered around the prone body of an officer.
Nelson spotted Capper among the crowd. The fallen man would have to be Cruger. But an hour past, Cruger had been reporting ready on the quarterdeck, grateful to be escaping icy Europa. Now chill oblivion threatened the young man. Nelson blanched as his stomach roiled, and he involuntarily grabbed the railing at his side to remain steady. His first command. His first engagement. And now, the first casualties.
Torn between continuing the battle and tending to his officer, Nelson chanced a look behind him. The Ganny had not come about, and she seemed to be heading off toward a long, yellow-gold band in the far distance—the interplanetary Sun-current. Damaged as she was and heading in the wrong direction besides, Badger would not likely catch the enemy before it could enter the current and be carried off Sunward—to which world, only God knew.
His nausea replaced with an unfocused rage and anguish, Nelson slammed his glass closed and made for the main deck. He strode quickly toward Capper and Forster, shoving gawking crewmen aside. Edwards followed in his wake.
“How bad?” Nelson demanded.
Forster, kneeling next to Cruger’s body, merely looked up at Nelson and shook his head. Cruger’s chest was covered in blood, a large piece of splintered wood the thickness of an oar sticking out of him.
Nelson lowered his head in silence, gathering himself as best he could, before turning toward his first lieutenant.
“Mr. Edwards,” he said finally. “Have the crew stand down, but keep lookouts upon the tops in case the Ganny’s retreat is a ruse. Begin repairs immediately and set course for Ganymede and Port Royal as soon as we are able.”
Edwards looked at Nelson with something akin to disgust, as though he wished nothing more than to throttle his commander. Yet he managed to mutter a simple, “Aye, sir,” before turning to relay the orders to the crew in a hoarse, choked voice.
Nelson wheeled around and quickly strode to his cabin, head down so the men would not see the tears on his face. It would be two days before the rest of the crew would see him on deck again. When he reappeared, it was only to order a new course, to a certain settlement upon Ganymede, before finally making for the Crown’s port.
To be continued…