by Hotspur O'Toole
I had to kick my legs out to prevent from throwing over as fleet Commander Murakami burst into my office.
"Visitors, sir, Lots of them!"
Visitors? This had my interest.
We walked up the three flights to the widow's walk. sighting on the small group of three, I noted a couple of Kotestus and a Lavanco. I turned to CDR. Murakami. "Who has two Kotetsus and a Lavanco?"
CDR Murakami shrugged. "No telling, sir. Some smaller mercenary fleets, perhaps, or a collection of them... No, Wait...!"
"The Naval Forces of the New Babbage Militia, sir... they had some Lavanco and Kotetsu in combination." At that moment, the wind stirred a little and the little blue flags blew open with the air, exposing the monkey wrench on blue and white background.
"Good guess, Mr. Murakami. Go see to it that we show honors for incoming.. looks like... Visiting Commodore. Friendly" That would be Jed Dagger's gang, then.
CDR Murakami saluted, and ran down the hill to the flag and shore battery.
I saw a seaman dip the flag once, twice... and then the saluting charge went of smartly, recognizing that a fleet of a foreign power had shown up. Even from a distance, I could see The Lady B at a dead run, grabbing as many layabouts as she could get her hands on to make a palatable line of side boys.
Rank has some privileges. A Commodore doesn't run if he doesn't have to.
I arrived at the dock in time for the lead Kotetsu, THE CHARGER, to pull up gracefully and throw out lines. The men manning the rails were all long service men I had seen here and there over time, I knew only a few by name. They appeared downcast and serious.. quite different from what I remembered. Jed keeps loose discipline, and gets back great service in return. Like a smart captain. I noticed THE CHARGER showed marks of being in a recent fight. There was a hole in her stack, obviously a pass through from an explosive shell. Many other direct hit dents and paint scrapes. Signs of small arms fire.
Commodore Jedburgh Dagger nodded impatiently at the boatswain's pipe down the gangplank, barely acknowledging the salutes. She walked directly up to me. She appeared tired and one arm was in a sling.
"Hullo, Jed. What brings your pack of Smokes* to Roatan?"
"Sir! Piracy of the worst kind."
I looked at her for a few beats. "To my office, then. Lady B, would you direct our guests' XO towards the mess hall and have Cookie put out something for the men, then come join us upstairs at your first convenience."
The Lady B nodded, and ushered out Commodore Dagger's apparent XO, a youngster named Palmer.
Commodore Dagger joined me on the roof. All military ceremony was gone, and she looked tired, angry, sore.
"Speak freely Jed. Have you been in action?"
"Aye, sir. Our own people, sad to say. And worse!"
Gradually, the story unfolded. The coup we had already known about. We had no idea the conditions in New Babbage had gone this far downhill. Obolensky's mechanical men. Beast-men Pirates. Armed goons patrolling the streets. The new puppet state of "Obolenskidonia". A turn for the worse, indeed. It took almost half an hour to tell in full.. of the takeover, the divided city.. the heroic resistance, the escape of three ships.. to come.. here. Might as well ask it up front.
"What would you have of us, Jed? Asylum? You already have that. Repairs? A hiding place? You have those if you need them. Even employment, if you want it."
"Thank you sir, but I may be politically undesirable. Obolensky IS the defacto government of New Babbage at the moment, like it or hate it. He would have the right to make complaints if you shelter us."
"Complaints to whom? The Autocrat hardly cares. Frankly, they'd have to find you first. Don't give it another thought. Stay as long as you like."
"Actually, I had in mind to return to New Babbage sooner rather than later", she said.
"Again, what would you need from us? Repairs? Provisions?"
"Ships. Crew. I mean to attack while Obolensky does not have a consolidated hold on the people and military. He has artillery, a small fleet, and some shore guns. but nothing that we couldn't handle on water."
"How many ships are left in Babbage, Jed?"
"Twenty? Twenty Five? Mostly New Babbage heavies. He is very low on crew, though."
"Attacking that many? In a town harbor? With Gun Emplacements? We would need a least a temporary advantage of three to one for such an attack, Jed. There's not a fleet on the planet so large!"
"Aye, not in one place, no... but combined, yes!"
At that moment, Eva rejoined us with a sheaf of foolscap in her hand.
"What do you have there, Eva?"
"Aether Telegrams, sir. From the Hardtacks**, the Steelheads***, and the Steubings++. All report they have sent a contingent of ships in our direction and request port clearance." She looked up, confused.
I looked up at Jed, sharply.
She shrugged. "Don't blame me, the Clockwinder has been a very busy little man in exile."
I frowned. Mayor (in exile) Tenk presumed too damned much if he thinks I was going to drop everything at a moment's notice and send out the largest force in Wrath Fleet history as a favor. Still.
I looked Jed steadily in the eye. She stared back, grinning.
"Alright then.. and who is going to lead this monkey knife fight, as if I didn't know already?"
She continued to stare. I could feel the Lady Eva's eyes on me as well.
"ALRIGHT then. Tell the little troublemaker that the Wraths will come through for him. But he's footing the coal bill for this trip.. it'll beggar me."
Jed grinned some more as the first shouts from the look outs heralded the arrival of the Hardtacks coming from the direction of the Lost Sea. Behind them, the plucky little Steelhead Naval Service fleet, Mixed Taos and Apache class ironclads. No sign of the Steubings yet. The White Fleet was late to the party.
By midday, the Emperor of Steeltopia himself (who I have and will always call "Blue" because it annoys him), Commodore Peterman (standing, quite worn out, she being ill at the time) and various officers from the Rats ++ and Smokes clustered around a wall map. With the last Steelhead ship came a familiar, albeit diminutive, figure. Wounded, grim, and very much still game, down the ramp strode the Clockwinder of New Babbage, every pugnacious inch of his 3 foot 5 frame looking ready to strike someone. I stared at him solemnly, and saluted. Military ceremony isn't the Clockwinder's forte, but he knew he had a moment to rise to here, if he wanted the cooperation of this room of squabbling, egocentric naval officers. He came to attention, and acknowledged my salute. I nodded in the ensuing quiet. The room erupted into cheers as the crowd parted for the little Mayor of New Babbage, his face flushed from all the attention, as he strode up to the war plan table.
"Greetings, Hotspur. So you've done it."
"Me? I woke up this morning fighting one war, not two. I'd say it was YOU who did, it Tenk."
His face split into a rare grin. "Ah, yes.. I have been busy. Taking the helm of the operation?"
I gave him an exasperated look.
"Yes, I did know you would. Yes, I owe you one."
"You'll owe me one if we win. This is a nasty business, Tenk. A nasty business."
"Acknowledged. I will provide what intelligence there is. We'll need submarines, if you have them.. and enough power to breach the Obolensky retaining wall.. And Enough of a landing party to get the resistance started..."
Tenk pulled a crate up to the table, climbed up on it to speak to the planners assembled, and the serious work began. Down in the shipyard, the welding and riveting commenced, as various damaged fleets sought much needed repairs.
Three days later: Eastward approaches to the Vernian Sea
I handed Tenk the spyglass.
"Tenk, I've been in these waters before, many times, at night and day. And there never was a sandbar here before. Would you care to explain this?"
His eyes scanned the horizon.. "There! See? Some form of autonomic dredging machine. Something of Obolensky's. He's dredging the center of the channel to build an artificial sandbar. Hmmm. Elegant. He doesn't need nearly the manpower to defend the Eastern half of the city, does he? Damnably clever."
I could make out a large digging machine, half submerged, in the center of the channel.. pouring watery sand from the beach out into the center, where it poured out to settle in the water.
"This isn't good, Tenk. Not at all. We can't get our heavy class ships over this bar, or dredge it ourselves, in time."
"Are we scuppered?" he asked, frowning.
"Didn't say that. I'm saying an already complicated action has just become more complex. We'll need to anchor the Fear Endjin, the Babbage Mammoth, and the other heavy class out here, right up against the bar, and someone will have to sight the bombardment for us, from inside the city. Using semaphore. The rest of us, in particular, the subs, will be able to pass over the bar. WE have several Hollands with us to make the infantry landings in town. If he doesn't have a net out, we should have the element of surprise going for us. God help us if we get caught in a sea-net and he has shore artillery."
Tenk nodded, suddenly looking quite gray in the face. "H... I don't want to get these boys slaughtered if it's hopeless. Should we about face out of here, before we're detected?"
"It won't be easy, but it's not hopeless. If we wait much longer, the resistance will not grow any momentum and Obolensky has it won. Mayor Tenk, it's your call. We're going to take some casualties, I can't hide that fact. But if we are fast enough, and hit hard enough, and can land some marines in the right place to make a sudden snatch and grab... well, we can make this happen."
Again, he considered this. "Let's go, then."
I hauled up the signalman and gave him a message for the captains of the heavies to fall back. The Submarines were loading with marines trying to get their Lee-Enfield rifles through the hatch of the Hollands gracefully.
The mortar men on the Tyrans and Hardtack Defiant class ships were laying out and trimming the fuses for their mortar bombs to various preset lengths. I waved at CDR Comber on the DEUCALION. We'd need the tall Texan today..
The last of the marines were on board the Holland subs and they moved out to submerge quietly, advancing into Babbage. Suddenly, the silence was broken..
AIRSHIPS! THREE OF THEM! Advancing full speed.
Indeed, I could make out the silver grey skin of some fast moving lighter than air ships, clearly heavily armed from the slow manner of their turns. We were spotted, and they were coming this way.
I collapsed my scope in grim satisfaction.. NOT this time, my lads, not this time.
I had the Babbage officer next to me signal to Captain Somme on the LADY CALLI, the fleet communications ship.
A far off thrumming sound grew steadily discernible behind us as we approached the New Babbage bar. The far off airships appeared to be fighting a headwind, but were making slow progress. One by one, our smaller ships slipped over the sandbar, heading into the outreaches of the Vernian Sea. Overhead, Jonas, the last commander of the Fleet Air Arm of Middlesea, surged forward in my very own Black Maria Aether Frigate, which had been found in a warehouse in Caledon. It had taken two months and a small fortune in lindens, but she was here, surging over us low to salute and then rising up to engage three of Doctor Oblensky's airships. I laughed to myself. I'd never go into battle without decent air cover again. I waved up at Jonas's ship in futile fashion and stood off while the combined force entered the Babbage waterways. We might pull this off yet.
++ Steubing: A Caledonian Naval Oficer
* Smoke: A New Babbage seaman
*** Steelheads: A member of the Steelhead Naval Service
+ Rats: Wrath Fleet Crews
** Hardtacks: Steelopian Empire ship (a play on the word cookie)
For a good reference on naval terms, usage and customs, visit this page.