Here's another section from Uncle Barrington's memoires. The old duffer can use his laptop perfectly well (he's even given up trying to stuff coal into the CD slot) but still has a blind spot for 'that interweb malarky' so I've ended up with the job. I don't mind really, but don't tell him that!
And there we were, standing right at the bow, clear blue sky all around us, and nothing but cold air between us and the icy peaks, ten thousand feet below.
Her Ladyship spread her arms like wings into the airflow and leaned forward against the rail, her whole torso projecting into the void. A figurehead from a former age, gracing Dreadnought's prow like a sculpture of Britannia, or maybe an avenging angel. I clasped my arms around her waist and leaned forward until her streaming hair just brushed my face.
I really did wish she wouldn't do that sort of thing, for all the strength of the railings it's still a risk. Its not uncommon for a vessel to drop hundreds of feet in an instant if it catches a flaw the wrong way. Even a great lump like HMS Dreadnought can be tossed around like a cork at times, bless her sleek wrought iron hide. Then there are the up-draughts, down-draughts, side-draughts, and all the other draughts, currents and vortices that beset the unwary flyer and can blow stuff clean off the deck if it isn't securely tied down, especially in uncharted territory.
Uncharted this certainly was.
“What's that one called?” Her Ladyship called back to me, her voice modulating in the wind. She indicated a particularly imposing peak off the starboard bow.
“No idea” I replied.
She thought for a moment, then, “How about that one?” pointing further afield.
“Not a clue either!”
She glanced back at me over her shoulder, with one of her many expressions of teasing amusement.
“Don't know much for a navigator, do you!”
I was a bit piqued by that.
“I know as much about this area as anyone else on the planet; bugger all!”
“No maps in navigation?”
“Oh yes,” I replied, “The Admiralty issued us some special ones just before we weighed.”
She raised a dubious eyebrow at me.
“In case we came this way they sent us a big stack of white paper with a note pinned to it saying 'Please fill this in as you go'.” I wasn't kidding.
“Pretty accurate then.” she admitted, gazing at the snow-clad desolation below.
“You know perfectly well that no-one's ever mounted an expedition anything like this far.” I pointed out, “We're the first ever to come here.”
“Do you know,” I brightened as a new thought struck me, “What with Dreadnought leading the fleet, and us right here up the pointy end, it makes you and I the very first people ever to ... er... fly here!”
“Not quite the first,” she replied, suddenly sombre, and waved for'ard.
“No,” I agreed, “I suppose we aren't.” and we both gazed towards the Prussians, about twelve miles in front of us and a couple of thousand feet below.
The fleet had been gaining steadily for the last couple of days, and we'd finally cleared for action half an hour before. I could feel the difference in the vibration beneath my feet as the crew changed the gas in the buoyancy tanks, pumping in the merely highly flamable battle-mix, and tanking the downright explosive mixture used in the cruise. They've left it a bit late, I thought, if they have to vent much of it we'll be hard pressed to make it back to Stanley.
A subtle jolt passed throught the hull as the boilers stepped up again. Down near the keel the regulators moved about a bit in the boiler, engine revolutions increased, the and the great propellers at the stern thrashed faster and pitched a few degrees more.
I could almost feel the great ship beneath and behind me chortling with glee as it got to stretch its legs properly for the first time in weeks, thinking to itself. Damn the efficiency, now's the time for brute power!
The horizon dipped slightly as the planes angled and bit, airflow and speed taking the place of static lift.
Her Ladyship wasn't smiling now, the joy of flight that had captivated her a few moments before replaced by grim anticipation of the engagement to come. Not yet immediate; the first shot could come in minutes but more likely a couple of hours, maybe as much as a day if the Prussians had anything in reserve, though I was pretty sure they didn't.
A day at the absolute most I decided, as if that measurement had any meaning here, but then how long would it last? Would they stand and fight or make it a running battle? Either way I'd no idea.
In my experience naval engagements, either on the surface or in the air, always end in a slogging match that goes on as long as the combatants can see each other, then ends when darkness falls. Its very unusual for any battle to resume with the dawn, both parties taking the opportunity night affords to lick their wounds, make what repairs they can, and scarper.
That wasn't going to be an option here, darkness wouldn't be falling for a couple of months, so there was no escape for anyone.
“I wish you weren't here right now.” I whispered.
“Not much to do about it at this point is there?” she countered.
“You could go on the pinnace, she'll be heading north with the last report as soon as the fighting starts.”
“No chance!”she sounded a mite offended, and quite a bit more than a mite determined, “Besides, you know I've got the highest score on the ship.”
“Agreed!” I nestled down whispered in her ear, “You're certainly the best lay in the fleet!”
She turned and thumped me playfully, but hard, on the arm.
“What was that for?" I grinned, “Guns! I meant laying the guns!”
She smiled, her sombre mood easing a little. I still had my arms around her, so I pulled her close and looked deep into her sparkling sapphire eyes. She returned my gaze, then leaned forwards, kissed me, and rested her head on my shoulder.
We stood there in the wind for a few moments, holding each other and thinking about the looming battle. With a crew of nearly a thousand between us and the propellers just over six hundred feet away, we might as well have been all alone. Duty was calling, but it called in vain as we stretched the moment, both painfully aware that it could well be the last we'd share.
“Will we get out of this, do you think?” She asked after a minute.
“I don't know.” I replied. “ Dreadnought is the latest, toughest, best armed...”
“...So Philip will take us in first, out last, and wherever the fighting's thickest in between.” she finished, reminding me (as if there'd ever been any doubt) how well she knew our admiral.
I sighed. “True enough....” and could think of nothing to add.
We'd got turned around at some point, so I was leaning back against the railing, the chute built into the back of my jumpsuit both padding the rail and keeping my back warm. With Her Ladyship nestling in my arms at the front I could almost forget the bighting cold.
What would happen if I just grabbed her tight and rolled backwards over the rail?
Assuming we didn't hit the ram we'd be fine. We'd practiced plenty with the new suits, they were a real improvement on the previous unreliable models, so I'd no concerns on that score. We'd stay together most of the way down, then pull the cords at a thousand feet so we don't get separated. The terrain below had looked rough but passable, and a layer of (presumably) snow should cushion the landing. She'd be livid of course, but we'd live. She'd live! Yes!
We were thousands of miles from anywhere. Even knowing which direction north lay wouldn't help, pretty much everything was north from here, and even if we managed to trek the hundreds of miles back to the coast, we'd never be able to cross the ocean.
Scientific expeditions? Maybe, probably somewhere, but on twelve thousand miles of coastline.....
I know impractical when I dream it. It was cold enough up here, a few short steps from a hatch to the vessel's heated interior, but down there...? No-one had ever been here. No-one knew how cold it might be in those steep valleys, with bottoms that have never seen the sun, but they would certainly be the coldest places on Earth. I know about alpine survival, but the same rules would not apply here. No, here a snow-cave wouldn't keep your heat in, it would leech it out of you, the ancient, iron-hard ice sucking every erg in a vain attempt to melt.
The beautiful landscape below was death, death, death and nothing more. If we were down there, and very lucky, we might last long enough to hear the first shots of the looming battle sounding softly in the distance, but we'd certainly be dead long before it was over.
I sighed. Our best hope was here. Never mind loyalty, never mind England, never mind duty; pure self preservation dictated we man our stations and fight. Fight like professionals, fight like demons, fight as if our lives depended on it!
Because they did.
I sighed. I noticed it was getting colder, either that or our heat-packs were running out. I didn't dare take out my watch to check the time. I wasn't about to remove my mittens, but even if I were to do so I knew my fingertips would instantly stick to the cold metal. We'd had several injuries of the sort over the last couple of days and I didn't want to add to their number. Never mind. I noticed the guns on A-turret begin to rise. They elevated to twenty degrees and stopped. Loading.
I'd heard the klaxon signal 'Batten-and-Load' what seemed like a few moments ago but I knew (even for A-turret) it had to have taken at least twelve minutes to get to that point. As I looked further aft P-turret began to move. They were improving! B- and Q-turrets followed suit.
“You'll be needed soon,” I breathed, glad she'd be working by periscope from the fire-control, located deep inside the bowels of the ship between the main magazines. The safest place on the ship unless one of them is breached, and in that case... it would be quick.
“You don't think Lieutenant Pierce will feel put out?” she ventured.
“No I don't!” I replied, “Chain of command be damned! He knows as just well as you do how important it's going to be to get in the first hits. Besides...”
Her Ladyship raised an eyebrow again.
“He wants to live just as much as anyone else.”
A-turret began to lower again. Rounds seated and breeches closed, barrels returning to the ready position.
“You'll be on the bridge I suppose?” she asked, sure of the answer.
“Its where I can be most useful.”
It was Her Ladyship's turn to sigh. “I'd tell you to be careful, but...”
“You think I won't be?”
“No, its not that...” she paused, “Well. Yes, now you mention it, but that's not what I meant.”
I understood what she meant, and squeezed her close again.
A-turret's guns had locked back at zero, with the tompions removed and the low sun behind me I could see well down the barrels, the hypnotic spiral of the rifling drawing my gaze down towards the rounds, just visible at the breech. Red; long range HE, white tip; short fuse. I approved Gunny's choice, but our private refuge had just become a very dangerous place to be.
I was just about to mention the fact when Her Ladyship took a sharp breath and stiffened.
I turned and followed her gaze. In the distance I couldn't make out anything against the bright horizon, but after a second a brief spark of light drew my eyes to the important details. Yes, the Prussian fleet was dividing, smaller vessels peeling off to right and left.
“So, he's sending the destroyers in first then, Trust Otto to surprise us by doing exactly the same as last time.”
Her Ladyship snorted in a very unladylike manner, “Worked didn't it?”
I thought of Bellerophon and Basilisk and had to admit that she had a point.
“No darkness this time,” I offered, “and no cloud.”
“I hope you're right.”
“So do I.”
The deck beneath us jerked, and the vibration quickened once more. I looked aft and saw we were beginning to pull a little ahead of our consorts on either side. Trust Philip to lead from the front!
“Pinnace is away.” I said, as a sleek bullet detached itself from the rear deck and climbed away to starboard, “There goes the last way out.”
“The joy of the supernumerary.” Her Ladyship laughed wryly, “If we actually had jobs to do we'd not have any time to brood.
“We do have jobs to do.”
“Yes,” she leaned forward and kissed me again, suddenly all business once more, “Come on then, let's get on with them!”
Taking my hand she dragged me aft towards the citadel. The klaxon sounded again, this time with the urgent stattacco growl that signified 'Action Imminent'. All along the flank the secondaries unlimbered and swung out to their ready positions.
As we passed B-turret its barrels finally locked, all the main armament was prepped, loaded, and synced together.... just waiting for a clear target, and Her Ladyship's eye in fire-control.
HMS Dreadnought was ready.
© Marcus Brook 2017