The scene at the station’s docks was from a nightmare. Holes, lined with burnt timbers and twisted metal like so many jagged teeth yawned wide from where they sat along the walkways and docking slips. A black smoke, thick with oil and charred soot, billowed up from piles of smoldering debris that decorated the dock-facing side of a dozen or more warehouses. Along the dock, bodies lay sprawled along the battlefield. Both soldiers and the previously walking dead lay together in a silent brotherhood while rain fell in sporadic sheets onto the fallen. Above them, the thunder and lightning echoed solemnly.
Above the disaster, the drone of propellers announced the Griffin‘s approach. Gracefully, the small ship slid among the massive smoke plumes in a careful gambit to conceal themselves from any of RiBeld’s watchful mercenaries. Tonks Wilkerson cast a quick glance outward. Between the black oily clouds and soot, he saw – and could almost feel – the deadly fistfight between the two ships several hundred yards away. Satisfied they were as safe as they could be for the moment, he returned his attention to the task at hand – a close fly-by to look for any survivors as they readied to charge after RiBeld and his ship of bloody mercenaries.
By the rail, Captain Hunter clutched the wood as if he would rip it free with his own hands. He gazed silently into the smoke and fire on the docks below, watching for any sign, any motion, that would raise the hope that at least one – if not all – of his people sent to the station survived.
“Closer, Mr Wilkerson. I want the Griffin so close she’ll kiss the station hello.” Anthony Hunter growled. From the moment artillery had ripped at the station, he was like a man possessed. His fury towards RiBeld and frustration at being unable to find his missing crew shone clear in his stance.
Tonks, eyes fixed on the ship’s course, nodded curtly in reply. “Aye, Cap’n. Closer than comfort allows.”
The Griffin slid closer to the dock, between the smoke and fire. Beneath the vessel, firelight revealed the faces of lifeless victims, their eyes turned towards the sky. Suddenly, a green spark of light caught Hunter’s eye. It was the reflection of firelight off of a small green stone in a mason jar filled with murky fluid. The entire jar glowed as if it held the liquefied remains of a thousand fireflies, and sputtered an arc of greenish electricity. The arc danced along the leather harness the jar was attached to, then outlined the bloodied corpse.
“It could be some mystical trinket,” The captain said half-aloud to himself, “but I doubt it. Why put one in a mason jar? Probably a rational explanation for the whole thing.”
Tonks, who had heard only part of Hunter’s comment, asked from where he stood next to the ship’s wheel. “Cap’n?”
Hunter shook his head. “Nothing of great import that cannot wait until later, Mr. Wilkerson.”
A shout from the lookout overhead broke through their conversation. “Gunfire ahead!”
Hunter glanced up at the lookout, then in the direction the man pointed. Amid the smoke, orange bursts of flame peppered the air. Figures raced between remnants of cover and the lone structure of the dockmaster’s shack that somehow had survived the earlier bombardment. The captain snatched the spyglass from his pocket and pointed it towards the orange flares.
The smoke obscured his view a moment, then parted. A crude barricade of cast-off barrels had been hastily erected around the dockmaster’s shed. Behind the barrels, a small group of men crouched low and fired over the barrier. Among them, Hunter made out the lanky figure of William Falke. One hundred yards away, the mob of station crewmen approached; an unyielding press of shuffling bodies. The small group fired slow and steady into the crowd. Given the precision and rate of the shots, the captain assumed it was to conserve their ammunition. However, whenever one of their adversaries fell, it stood back up a moment later, despite often having taken what should have been a lethal wound.
Captain Hunter lowered the spyglass from his eye and closed the device again. “Men do not stand up after taking a rifle shot to the chest or neck. Whatever they are – clockwork creation or otherwise – I doubt they’ll shrug off cannon-fire with as much ease.” Hunter raised his voice. “Gunners! Two cannon, cannister shot for both. Let’s buy our people time. Mr. Tonks, bring us about a few degrees for our port guns!”
“Aye Cap’n.” Tonks said, turning the wheel to the right. Along the port side, two of the cannon were loaded, fuses set and lit. Seconds later they erupted with a roar and the foul smoke of gunpowder. The cannister shots screamed out and tore away until the air was filled with a deadly cloud of hundreds of musket balls, nails and scrap iron shards. A heartbeat later, the shrapnel fanned out, ripping into the lead figures of the mob, shredding them as a steam-powered thresher would fell wheat in a field. Figures shuddered with the impact of the debris, and everywhere the sound of shattered glass could be heard over the commotion. As the victims caught in the blast fell, green electricity arced over the field and danced among the fallen.
While the surviving zombies scattered away from the blast, William Falke looked up and around. When he spied the Griffin overhead, he waved and cheered. A moment later his men cheered with him. Above them, the Brass Griffin sailed low under the trailing edge of the smoke, a mere ninety yards above the dock, before turning away from the station and towards the other two ships nearby.
“Good shot!” The captain called out with a smile to the gunnery crew, then turned towards the pilot.
“Now for the tricky part.” Hunter started, before being promptly interrupted by another bright explosion of fire along the rooftop of a nearby station warehouse. The captain flinched instinctively from the flash of light, then looked in the direction the artillery shot had come from.
“That had ta be for us, Cap’n.” Tonks, who had ducked also, stood back upright at the wheel. “The other ship’s out of line for a shot this direction.”
Hunter nodded in agreement. “Indeed. Only our best fortune that RiBeld’s gunners are poor marksmen. We need to answer them before they get more practice and improve their aim.”
“We’re at a bad angle, Cap’n.” Tonks said. “Nothin’ we’ve got will angle up that high. It’d send the guns right through the deck, even the lightnin’ cannon.”
As the captain gazed at RiBeld’s ship and its battered opponent, the Roman vessel fired the remainder of her working guns. Smoke belched out, and cannon shot rang true against RiBeld’s ship, though most glanced off the metal-shod hull. Even so, it shuddered from the impact.
“His hull’s too strong for a broadside, what with that metal plating he’s got there.” Hunter thought aloud. “However, at the proper angle … that might work to our benefit.” He watched the two ships sail by each other. While the Roman ship maneuvered directly away from the station, RiBeld and his men sailed parallel to both the station and the Roman ship, which granted him the widest field of fire. In his mind, the captain quickly plotted the course of both ships, and his own, a few minutes sail time into the future. While he imagined the outcome of his plan, he smiled.
“Mr. Tonks, bring us about ten degrees starboard. Put the station to our backs and keep to this column of smoke. Set a course parallel with the damaged ship.” The captain gestured in the direction of the ship battle while he explained.
Tonks nodded. “Aye, Cap’n. But won’t that put us under the two ships?”
Hunter grinned, “Yes, Mr. Tonks, yes it will. Once we’re about two cables from the damaged vessel, bring us up, hard. When we’re behind them, we’ll open up with everything we’ve got. RiBeld has some armor on his beast there, but did he remember to protect her backside? Let’s find out. Even if he has, the impact ought to shake her timbers enough that it ought to rattle her apart.”
“Cap’n, that’ll only be four hundred yards distant once we rise up to cut across the path of those ships. Close range for any cannon. If we miss, or he manages to turn on us, we’ll be in bad straights.” Tonks replied. “We’ll be in full sight for a broadside from that wounded ship, at least.”
The captain nodded curtly, “I know, Mr. Tonks, I know. RiBeld’s backside is the least armed. It’s also the most vulnerable. Besides, he can’t turn a ship of that size quickly, and that other craft is far too wounded to move fast enough to harm us. If we’re on the mark, we’ll be in, have fired, and reloaded well before RiBeld can turn on us, or before the other vessel might wish to chance a fight against us.” Hunter took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m hoping they’ll take the offered helping hand here, and concentrate what fire they have on RiBeld.”
With a gaze at the pitched battle between the other two ships, then a glance at the smoke in front of them, Tonks whistled a tuneless note while he exhaled. “Well, when I signed on, ya said it’d be interesting.” The pilot took a deep breath, spun the ship’s wheel to his right, then shouted, “Coming about ten degrees starboard! Goggles down! We’ll be flyin’ in hot!”