Duke Forecastle - Part 10

Duke Forecastle - Part 10
It was a pity that Duke Forecastle’s tiny library lacked any copies of Scripture.
As the battle raged on in full view of his wardroom window, he found himself wanting to reread the parts of the Book of Canon that talked about the afterlife. This was not because he was feeling particularly morbid, but because he was beginning to suspect that he had already croaked.
Scripture said that there were various places you might end up after your life was over, based on how well you’d done your Duty. A life of exceptional service might earn you a special reward. For warlords, this was a welcome in the City of Heroes. Other types of units had their own such destinations of Titanic glory.
In the Titans’ judgment, though, most units would be found to have lived an acceptable life but not an extraordinary one. Scripture had several different ways to describe what happened to you then, such as “rejoining the spirit of the world,” “returning to zero,” and even, strangely, “going back into the box.” It seemed to mean that you would lose your identity and melt away, perhaps with a deep and lingering (or even eternal) sense of satisfaction.
But if you did something awful in your life, if you betrayed your side or willfully shirked your Duty somehow, then you would retain your sense of self, as you were sent to a different place. This was a place of infinite wrongness, where everything around you clashed with who you were and what you wanted, a place where you simply did not belong. There could be no peace or satisfaction for you there. For warlords, this was the City of Hellabad.
Forecastle didn’t think Hellabad had ever been described as a ship at sea. But for a land-bound warrior, a rider of heavy steeds and a patroler of city walls, perhaps it was. Maybe when a warlord only wanted to fight for his side, having to sit in a chair and watch Her Majesty’s forces being systematically dismantled was Hellabad.
So. Maybe he had drowned, after all. And his grievous, unforgivable sin had been taming that bird.
Even two decks above the waterline, the waves in this hex often rose high enough to obscure the Duke’s view of the fight, a view which was itself obscured by the pouring rain. The mighty battleship could weather a storm as stoically as any vessel that ever had popped or been built. She rolled with the swells, her joints and timbers creaked almost in harmony with the wind.
But she wasn’t faring as well with the rain of enemy Shockmancy.
They’d taken about fifteen blasts so far. They might have been intentionally drawing the enemy’s shots, in fact. The first thing the Admiral had done in the battle was to turn Unsinkable II across the enemy line to break it. She had raked an Anchorbar three-master (their flagship, maybe?) across the stern and left it holed and rudderless, before turning back and charging once more through the line to trade broadsides with a second big warship.
They’d won that exchange, too, but Her Majesty’s flagship had paid the price. As First Mate, Forecastle could sense they’d lost eleven crew, and the ship was not in good repair. Meanwhile, every time he caught a good view of the Seaworld line, another of their ships seemed to be stricken or sinking.
Forecastle thought he understood enough of the battle tactics to follow along, but he didn’t know how Seaworld could be losing so many ships so quickly. It didn’t seem as if the two lines had exchanged enough shots to sink and cripple this many vessels. (“Lines” might be overstating things;  the battle had now degenerated into a chaotic melee.) And all of the losses seemed to be on Seaworld’s side.
The Duke stared out the cracked window. Another of Her Majesty’s ships he couldn’t immediately identify was keeling over. He didn’t see any damage on her, and hadn’t actually seen the ship take any hits.
He wished he knew what was going on. The great mystery of how Anchorbar won its battles was playing out right in front of him, and he couldn’t make the slightest bit of sense of it. There were no fire cannons or ship-swallowing whirlpools out there, no terrifying hordes of previously unknown natural allies.
There weren’t even any flocks of tame double-eagles flying around. So much for that. (Although their own “mascot” was still aboard, he could sense.)

Well, either he was in Hellabad and this hopeless battle would rage on for eternity...or he would soon understand what the Anchormen were doing, when they did it to Unsinkable II. He drew his sword and sharpened the blade for the umpteenth time. This would end badly; they’d almost certainly be boarded. When that happened, at least his term of arrest would be over. He wasn’t clear if his orders were still to fight the enemy when that became necessary, but that was what he planned to do.
He had to wonder why Admiral Chequer chose to fight this battle here, in the downpour, at a spot of the enemy’s choosing.
Granted, the fleet was nearly out of move. The tactical options were limited. But they’d still had enough left to turn around and retreat into the clear hex behind them. The fleet could have formed up for battle there, relayed plans and orders, and awaited Anchorbar’s turn. They would even have known the likely direction of the enemy’s approach. His book on naval warfare said that gave you a big advantage. You could maneuver to hold the “windward gage” or something.
Well, maybe Chequer saw an angle here that Forecastle couldn’t. Or maybe he didn’t think the Anchormen would attack, if he gave up this chance to engage them. Despite Seaworld’s awful history against Anchorbar, the Admiral always maintained that they only needed to catch the enemy’s main fleet at sea, and it would all be settled. It could be as simple a matter as overconfidence, which had lost as many battles as anything else.
At any rate, the option to fall back no longer existed. Unsinkable II was too badly mauled to leave. As First Mate, he could sense it; the remaining move of the crew was not enough to sail her away in her current condition.
They’d fight here, and croak here, in this miserable rain. And unless he somehow ended up a prisoner, he would never see sunlight again.
As far as he knew, Anchorbar had never taken any Seaworld units prisoner.
The battle fell into a grim and sluggish grind. Having lost much of her swiftness and maneuverability, Unsinkable II stopped trying to win by outsailing the enemy. Instead, she was relying on her powerful array of beams to blast away at any ship in her sights.
To a limited extent, this was working. After suffering a few bashing broadsides, the Anchorbar fleet mostly left the big flagship alone. They were working in twos and threes to encircle and harry the rest of the Seaworld fleet, boxing in any ships that looked like they still might be able to flee the hex. (There weren’t many of those left, as far as Forecastle could tell.)
But then he saw a sleek-looking frigate emerge from the gray rain, bearing down on Unsinkable II’s position with clear intent to fight. Muffled shouting from the quarterdeck was followed by a lurching attempt to bring her about to starboard.
The frigate had the much better turn rate. Over the course of two minutes’ time, she inevitably came astern of the flagship, perfectly perpendicular and ready to fire a full broadside. Forecastle stood at his cracked window and looked upon the enemy sailors for the first time. Their colors were burgundy and gray, and their jacketed uniforms were adorned with flat, striped neckerchiefs in various other colors.
Shockmancy crackled in the rigging as the enemy ship prepared to rake the stern, exactly where the Duke stood. He did not cower or flinch. He held his sword ready and watched the Anchormen work. An officer on their main deck spotted him and locked eyes for a moment. He was a man with curly brown hair and a trim mustache. Their first mate, perhaps? His counterpart, except competent enough to be on deck in battle.
The ships pitched in the high waves, rising and falling by four decks’ height with each roll. If the enemy intended to take out Unsinkable II’s beams and sails, they would wait to fire on the up roll, so that their shots would strike high. If they were aiming to blast the crew and the hull, they would wait for the down roll.
An up roll passed. He looked down the slope of the waves and could see the frigate’s entire deck. Then the enemy ship rose and the Unsinkable II fell. The air was filled with blue light. For a moment, Forecastle could see every drop of rain frozen in the air over the waves.
He fell backward into his writing desk and ended up sitting on the cabin floor beside his bunk. The ship had been hard struck in the stern, but his wardroom window had not even blown in. He was not injured.
Yet he did feel physically weaker, more vulnerable. He blinked, trying to clear his eyes of the blinding aftereffects of the enemy shot. Sounds other than the roar of the beams and the ocean came to his ears again...shouting, screaming, the falling of beams. What was wrong? He’d...
He’d lost a leadership bonus. Admiral Chequer was no longer a member of the crew.
He sat there on the hardwood deck, numbly, just listening. Among the shouting and pounding from abovedecks, one set of bootsteps seemed to reach his ears like a bugle call, getting louder and sharper. Then the pounding of a fist on his cabin door rang like a tolling bell.
“Fawksuuuull!” came Cat Harping’s shout from the corridor. “Get on deck, lubber! You’re in command!”
Forecastle nodded, slowly, glancing at the enemy frigate still looming outside his window. In Hellabad, you are not a helpless witness to a losing fight. In Hellabad, you are the captain.