Eddie raised his binoculars and studied the oncoming Danish fleet nervously. Hans' estimate of their numbers had been accurate, he decided, though it was difficult to get any sort of a definitive count. Too many of the vessels overlapped and merged into one another when he tried to make one out.
Most of the twenty or thirty ships he could see seemed to have gun ports, but that didn't mean a lot, he reminded himself. Most 17th-century seagoing merchant ships carried at least a few guns to ward off pirates, if nothing else. The majority of the ships in that straggling formation had to be transports, not regular warships. Of course, the fact that they weren't officially warships didn't mean that any anti-pirate guns they carried couldn't be sufficiently dangerous.
He swung the binoculars gently back and forth while he tried to analyze the Danish formation . . . such as it was, and what there was of it. The larger ships appeared to be in what was supposed to be a single column, heading toward Wismar at perhaps three or four miles an hour. If it was supposed to be a column, it wasn't a very neat one, but he and Larry were scarcely in a position to criticize anyone else's seamanship.
His mouth twitched in an almost-smile at the thought, and he turned his attention to the smaller vessels Hans had reported. There were more of them than of the larger ones, clustered around the untidy column like goslings around geese. Most of them looked like no more than large row boats, although the majority had at least some sort of sail, but four or five of them were larger, lower, and sleeker. And—his binoculars stopped moving, and his jaw muscles tightened—those larger "row boats" each had what looked like a good-sized cannon mounted in its bows.
They can't be as big as I think they are, he told himself sternly. The damned boats would capsize if they tried to fire thirty-two-pounders at us! But even a teeny-tiny one-pounder can take someone's head off without any trouble at all. And those ain't one-pounders, Eddie! Probably more like three-pounders, maybe even sixes . . . or nine-pounders.
He let his eyes linger on the gunboats for a few moments longer, then made himself look away. The odds of a single 17th-century cannon's actually managing to hit a 21st-century speedboat were minute. That was going to take an entire broadside—or blind luck. He couldn't do much about the latter, but he intended to see to it that no broadsides got a clear shot at him.
"All right." He lowered the glasses and turned to look at Larry and their single additional crewman. "I don't want to get any more tangled up in them than we can help, Larry. But if we can manage it, I'd like a shot where at least a couple of them overlap. That way, anything that misses the closest ship still has a chance of hitting something else."
Larry cocked his head, lips pursed while he contemplated the Danish formation, then he nodded slowly.
"Looks to me," Eddie continued, "like our best bet is going to be to get inshore of them. We ought to have enough water, and we'll keep an eye on the fathometer." He tapped the digital depth display, and Larry nodded again. "The main thing though, is that if we come at them from the coastline, we'll have the choice of breaking left or right after we fire without having to worry about running into the coast, right?"
"Sounds reasonable to me," Larry agreed. His effort to project an air of nonchalance was not an outstanding success, but Eddie decided not to hold that against him under the circumstances.
"What I'd really like to do," he explained, "is to take out some of their warships. That's where their commanding officer's most likely to be, and I'll bet that most of those merchant ships would just as soon be somewhere else, anyway. If we can pick off a couple of their escorts, they may turn and run for it. And it looks to me like most of their regular navy units are concentrated toward the back of their formation." He pointed across the water. "That's probably so that they'll have the wind behind them if they have to run down to intercept us if we try to get at the transports."
Larry nodded again, and Eddie turned to the other member of their three-man crew. Bjorn Svedberg was a bit on the scrawny side for a proper Viking, but he certainly had the blond hair and beard for the role. More to the point, however, he'd been chosen for the Outlaw's crew because his English, although heavily accented, was excellent.
"I want to make at least two attack runs, Bjorn. You and I will let Lieutenant Wild manage the helm while we reload between shots. Right?"
"Right," Svedberg agreed, and nodded so enthusiastically that Eddie chuckled. Bjorn really wanted to see the rocket launcher in action. Well, so did Eddie, come to that. Although now that the moment was approaching, he seemed to be experiencing a small degree of difficulty where bladder control was concerned.
"All right, then, Larry," he said. "Cut around to get between them and the shore."
"Right. I mean, yessir."
The big speedboat swung to port as Larry eased the wheel over.
Hans concentrated conscientiously on his flying as he floated between the chasms of cloud, but it wasn't easy. The surface of the Baltic was a dark blue carpet below him, wrinkled by moving lines of white as waves marched across it. From up here, it was easy to imagine that all he saw below him were toys, but he knew better.
This wasn't like the day he had gone into battle the first time as a terrified young recruit whose only fragile chance of protecting his extended family had depended on "proving himself" in the eyes of the very men who'd murdered his father and gang raped his sister. Then he'd faced battle not because he'd wanted to, but because he'd had no choice. Because he'd had to fight as one of those he hated with all his heart and soul, for the sake of those he loved.
Today was different. Today he sat in the cockpit of this wondrous airplane because he'd chosen to. Because he'd found something he would never have believed might have existed just two years ago: a nation and a cause that was actually worth dying for. A world which would protect those he loved even if he was no longer in it, and which would extend that protection to everyone.
Hans Richter wasn't made of the same unflinching steel as his sister. He knew that, and he accepted it. After all, no one was as strong as Gretchen . . . or as ruthless where her loved ones were concerned. But he was her brother. Some of that same steel infused him, even if in lesser measure, and he felt it now at his core.
He had nothing personal against any of the Danes on those ships below him. More than that, he knew they were being used just as surely as he'd been used during his brief career as one of Tilly's mercenaries, and that the subtle mind which had truly chosen them as tools resided in Paris, not Copenhagen. But that didn't matter. However they came to be here, they were a mortal threat to everything in the universe that mattered to Hans, and he would remove that threat. He and his brothers from the future, he thought, gazing down at the white arrowhead of foam curving around to attack the enemy.
He watched the Outlaw circling around, and even as he kept his wary hand light upon the stick, a part of his mind was down on that arrowhead with Eddie and Larry, accompanying two more of those he loved into battle.
Tesdorf Vadgaard watched the same white arrowhead—and the two behind it—slice through the water and felt an even greater sense of awe than he had when he first saw the flying shape. A corner of his mind insisted that he shouldn't have. That the miracle of flight far surpassed anything that might happen upon the mundane surface of the sea. But that was the point. The very concept of humans in flight was so alien to him that even now the flying machine seemed more like a mythical creature from some fabulous tale than reality. More than that, he was a professional seaman. He'd spent two-thirds of his life mastering his craft, and he knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that no vessel in the world could do what these were doing.
It wasn't simply the way they moved without oars or sails, however profoundly unnatural that might seem. It was the speed at which they moved. For the first time in his life, Vadgaard found himself completely unable to estimate the speed of another ship. He'd never seen one move that quickly, never imagined one could. Whatever his guess, he knew that it was low, that they were moving even faster than that, and he felt his jaw muscles tighten as he considered what that impossible speed would mean for his gunners.
On the other hand, he told himself, studying the oncoming threat through his telescope once more, he saw no sign of artillery aboard any of them. For that matter, the more he gazed at those sharp-sided hulls, the more he realized that they couldn't mount guns. There was simply no place to put them.
But they had put something on their foredecks, and Vadgaard muttered an oath under his breath as he cudgeled his brain, trying to remember everything from the spies' reports he had paid so little attention to.
One thing was obvious, he decided, watching how smoothly the Americans maneuvered their vessels—they had some means of communication. They couldn't possibly have responded so quickly, moved so adroitly and with such assured coordination, if they hadn't. It must be another example of that mysterious "radio" from the rumors, and he felt a deep, burning sense of envy as he contemplated it. No seaman who had ever attempted to maneuver more than two or three ships could not have envied it. Not when he watched the other ships under his command slipping and sliding into action any way they could, all too often completely blind to opportunities he saw because there was no way for him to tell them about it.
That wouldn't happen to the Americans, he told himself. Which made them even more dangerous than the impossible speed of their vessels and whatever mysterious weapons they mounted might otherwise imply.
And speaking of weapons . . .
He steadied his glass on the lead American. It was the biggest of the three, and Vadgaard nodded to himself as he realized the other two were falling back slightly. Obviously the American commodore was aboard the lead ship of his squadron. He intended to open the attack himself, holding his other two units in reserve—a luxury his ability to communicate with them made possible. He could afford to commit them separately because of his ability to control their movements with as much confidence and sureness as he did his own flagship.
That much was obvious, but what interested Vadgaard most intensely at the moment was that angular framework on the flagship's foredeck. It was obviously a weapon, but not like any weapon he'd ever seen before. He stared at it until his eye ached, watching the enemy flagship moving steadily northeast along the Mecklenburg coast. It wasn't a gun, so what was it? It looked like . . .
His blood seemed to freeze suddenly in his veins as he remembered the stories about what the Americans had done to the Spaniards at the Wartburg, and to German armies at Badenburg and the Alte Veste. They'd used several new and demonic weapons no one had ever heard of, one of which had spread hellfire across the Spaniards trapped in the ancient castle. True, the tales Vadgaard had heard sounded as if the Americans had used an old-style catapult of some kind to launch the bombs used at the Wartburg. There was certainly no room for such on the boat hurtling its way toward him, any more than there was for cannon.
But . . . there had also been tales of other weapons. Like the ones they called "rockets." Intellectually, Vadgaard suspected that the chilling tales of the range, accuracy, and devastating effect of the American weapons must be exaggerated. After all, the tales came from Spaniards and Germans, not Danes! And all questions of national courage aside, anyone so resoundingly defeated by such novel weapons would be certain to overestimate their effectiveness. And not necessarily just to cover the humiliation of their defeat, either.
But whatever Vadgaard's intellect might suspect, his emotions were something else. They didn't care about his intellect, and he swallowed hard as the American flagship altered course once again. The American commodore had obviously reached the position of advantage he'd wanted. Now he was turning to launch his attack, maneuvering his units with cold-blooded, professional skill.
He no longer needed it to see the American ship. Not when it was so close and aimed straight at his own.
"Here we go!"
It was scarcely a proper military announcement, but Eddie felt no temptation to reprimand Larry for it. Not under the circumstances.
The Outlaw made its final turn, the engines' snarl rose in power and pitch as Larry advanced the throttles, and Eddie reached forward and slammed the hinged steel plate of the rocket launcher's blast deflector into the upright position. He threw the old-fashioned dead bolt which locked it there, and glanced sideways at Larry.
His friend was leaning forward in the comfortable chair, a bit closer to the wheel than he had been, in order to peer through the heavy glass plate in the deflector. It wasn't very big, and from the way Larry was craning his neck, Eddie suspected that the launcher blocked even more of his forward view than they'd expected it to. He kicked himself mentally as soon as the thought occurred to him. They ought to have gone ahead and loaded the launcher and let Larry practice handling the boat with all eight cells filled and the deflector up. At least then his friend would have had a little experience managing the Outlaw when the launcher was no longer simply an open framework of welded steel rods.
But there was nothing they could do about that at this point, and Eddie leaned forward to peer through his own glass-protected slot in the blast shield. His was different from Larry's. In fact, his was positioned dead center behind the launcher, giving him an unobstructed view through what would have been its ninth cell. It was the crudest sighting mechanism conceivable, but it ought to work. Assuming, of course, that the axes of the other eight cells were accurately aligned with it. And that the rockets would fly straight.
And that the damned boat wouldn't bounce at exactly the wrong moment, he told himself grimly.
"Right! We have to come right!" he shouted to Larry, never taking his eyes from the simple wire crosshairs in the center of the launcher's missing cell.
"Gotcha!" Larry shouted back, and nudged the wheel. Eddie's sight picture changed, and he shook his head.
"Too much—too much!"
This time, Larry didn't reply; but the Outlaw altered its course again, ever so slightly, and Eddie nodded hard.
"On! You're on!" he shouted. "Now kick this bitch in the ass!"
Eddie clung desperately for balance, managing—somehow—to keep his eyes glued to the crosshairs, as the Outlaw stopped bouncing. It was climbing up onto its own bow wave, now—hydroplaning as it sliced across the three-foot Baltic waves like a bullet.
* * *
"Stand ready! But if any man fires before I give the order, I'll have him hanged!" Vadgaard shouted to his gunners, then glanced up at Christiania's hovering sailing master.
Unlike the captains of most non-Dutch warships, Vadgaard was a seaman, not one of those "captains" who were chosen (in theory, at least) for their experience in battle, without regard as to whether that battle had taken place afloat or ashore. There was no doubt in the mind of Christiania's sailing master that he ought to be handling the ship's maneuvers, but Vadgaard had no intention of delegating that to anyone. Not when Christiania was the only ship in his squadron which he could hope to control directly.
"Bring her a point to larboard," he told the helmsman quietly.
"Aye-aye, sir," the helmsman acknowledged. Christiania's bowsprit swept around to point further east while feet thudded on her deck as seamen hurried to trim her sails.
He'd been wrong, Vadgaard realized as he watched the oncoming American. The attack wasn't aimed directly at Christiania. But it wasn't his fault he'd been fooled; he simply hadn't realized how much speed that fiendish craft had still had in reserve. What had looked like a turn to align itself on Christiania had actually been a turn to align on the Anthonette, two full ship lengths ahead of Vadgaard's flagship.
The American vessel had leapt to starkly impossible speed in what seemed less than a heartbeat. It was no longer slashing through the water like some unnatural plowshare, piling the white furrow of its bow wave to either side. Now it was tearing across the waves, half its sleek, knife-sharp length completely out of the water as it charged straight into the heart of his command.
Hans watched the Outlaw accelerate. Eddie and Larry had told him what Jack Clements had said about the big speedboat's maximum speed, but Hans hadn't really believed it. In fact, he'd been privately convinced that they were "putting him on," as the up-timers were fond of calling it. It just hadn't seemed possible that a boat could be almost as fast in the water as a Belle was in the air!
Now he knew they hadn't been "putting him on" at all. Then again, the Outlaw wasn't being that fast in the water. Even from Hans' altitude, he could see the way the bows rose up out of the waves, like some shark coming to the surface for its prey.
* * *
The universe was wings of white foam, flying across icy blue water. It was a fiberglass hull, half-airborne and half-afloat. It was engine snarl, the ear-battering impacts of that hull as it smashed across the crests of the Baltic waves, and the roar of wind around the angular barrier of the blast shield.
Eddie Cantrell hung onto the edge of the cabin hatch with his left hand, still managing to watch their target growing through his crude sight, while his right reached for the simple doorbell pushbutton incongruously fastened just below the sight. He hadn't been prepared for how quickly the range would drop, but at least the Outlaw's sheer speed had taken the bouncing effect out of the equation. The boat was no longer bouncing—despite the shocks, it was steady as a rock as it hydroplaned toward the Danes.
There was another sound, now. One that cut through even the howling chaos of the Outlaw's passage like thunder and sent clouds of dirty-white smoke spurting and rolling like fresh banks of fog. Waterspouts rose in white stalagmites as the Danish ships began to fire. But the men behind those guns, however experienced and skilled they might have been otherwise, had no experience at all in estimating the speed of a target like the Outlaw. None of the shots landed anywhere close to the charging speedboat. In fact, Eddie scarcely even noticed them. He was too focused on his sight picture and the plunging range.
It was all happening too quickly. There was no time to stand back and estimate ranges carefully. Besides, at this speed they were going to have to change course quickly . . . unless they wanted to bury the Outlaw in the target of their attack right along with its rockets!
He waited one more fleeting second, then stabbed the bell push with his thumb. A circuit closed. Current flashed suddenly through simple insulated wire to the igniters an ex-high school chemistry teacher had installed in eight eight-inch black-powder rocket motors.
For just an instant, Vadgaard thought the American had blown up.
The entire vessel seemed to disappear in a huge flashing, gushing roar of flame and an enormous burst of smoke. But the illusion of the American's destruction vanished as swiftly as it had come. The ship itself came charging through the cloud of flame, trailing smoke behind it . . . and eight fiery projectiles screamed ahead of it like dragon's breath.