The blast deflector worked. Eddie felt as if every hair had been singed off his head, but the shield had protected them from the rockets' incredible back blast. What no one had expected or allowed for was its disorienting effect. The sudden, blinding fury as eight powerful black-powder rockets ignited as one directly in front of them was indescribable. It didn't actually hurt them in any way, and if they'd realized it was coming, it probably wouldn't have had anywhere near the effect it did.
But they hadn't realized. Larry Wild had never before experienced the explosion of flame and smoke across a thick glass plate barely two feet in front of his eyes, and he would have been more than human not to flinch.
Tesdorf Vadgaard recoiled from the missiles. It wasn't as if he'd never seen smoke and flame before. In fact, in many ways, the new weapon was less terrifying than staring directly into an enemy ship's broadside and seeing dozens of gun muzzles vomiting their flaming hatred. But no one of Vadgaard's time and place had any experience of something like this. Of ruler-straight lines of smoke. Of roaring black monsters with tails of flame. Or of the brutal explosions as five of them smashed into Anthonette's side like the hammer of Thor itself.
Three of them missed her completely. One of those hit nothing at all. A second hit one of the fishing boats Vadgaard had impressed to help transport the troops under his protection. It exploded squarely in the middle of the hapless infantrymen, slaughtering them like so many tightly packed animals and blowing the thinly planked hull apart. What was left of the fishing boat rolled over and sank within minutes.
The third of the "misses" exploded against the mainmast of a transport brig. The mast snapped like a sapling in a tornado, and the ship staggered aside as the flaming remnants of its mainsail set fire to her standing rigging. An inferno roared and bellowed as it consumed the heavily tarred cordage.
Vadgaard had no idea how much powder each of those missiles carried. Nor did it matter. One of the ones which hit Anthonette skipped off of her stout planking. Another exploded in the instant of contact, blowing a smoking, splintered crater in the surface of her side. Two more of them buried themselves in her thick timbers before they exploded. Those two ripped huge, ragged holes and shattered planking like sledgehammers. They also threw geysers of flaming debris into her rigging and cordage. No doubt, Vadgaard thought, the fires that debris started would have doomed her anyway, just as surely as the blazing brig beyond her, but it scarcely mattered. Because the fifth missile plunged directly into an open gun port and exploded inside the ship.
The force of the blast ripped up through Anthonette's deck in a hurricane of smoke, fire, and splinters. Pieces of men came with it, and some of the men from whom those pieces came shrieked in agony. The mainmast fell—slowly, at first, but with rapidly gathering speed—as the shattering explosion cut it off like an ax just below the level of the deck. More blazing debris started still other fires all along her topsides, but that was nothing compared to the wavefront of flame cascading through her mid-deck spaces.
The wavefront that found her magazine.
Eddie felt the explosion like a body blow, and elation flashed through him on a wave of triumph. It had worked!
But even as he realized that, he had to grab suddenly for whatever handhold he could find. The Outlaw slewed wildly to port as Larry flinched instinctively away from the rockets' back blast. At a lower speed, it would have been a scarcely noticed bobble, a small kink in the Outlaw's wake. At their actual speed, it sent the thundering boat sprawling to port in a sliding, fishtailing, spray-shrouded momentary loss of control.
And because that unplanned change of course carried them directly through the arc of Christiania's broadside.
Time seemed to have stopped. Bits and pieces of what had been Anthonette rose into the air like the petals of some obscene, fire-hearted flower, and Vadgaard cringed away from its fury. Fire was the most deadly foe of any wooden ship, and he sensed the panic which possessed Christiania's sailing master as the flaming shower of wreckage began to descend once again. It was a panic Vadgaard understood perfectly, but he had no time to feel it himself.
The Americans had destroyed three of his ships and killed hundreds of his men with their horror weapons, but for all of their marvels, they weren't gods. They were mortal, and as they put their helm hard over to break away from their attack, their course brought them where he could get at them. They were moving so quickly there was no possibility of adjusting his gunners' aim. Indeed, there was no point trying to aim at all, but Tesdorf Vadgaard would see himself damned and in Hell if he didn't at least try.
His sword was in his hand—not that he remembered drawing it—and he thrust it wildly at the careening American vessel.
"Fire!" he screamed.
It was the end of the world.
Actually, only a single shot from Christiania's entire broadside found a target. The eighteen-pound roundshot was what pilots three hundred years in the future would call a "golden BB"—a fluke hit, that should never have happened.
But it did.
Eddie Cantrell had a fleeting moment to see the starboard edge of the Outlaw's cockpit shatter as a spherical iron ax five inches in diameter smashed into the fiberglass. Splinters flew like smaller, flatter axes, and Bjorn Svedberg screamed as one of them ripped through his chest.
Larry didn't scream. He had no opportunity to as the same roundshot literally cut him in half . . . an instant before it struck Eddie's left leg.
* * *
Hans saw it happen.
One instant he was pounding his knee with a jubilant fist as he watched enemy ships exploding. The next, he saw the Outlaw go staggering aside and the gout of muzzle flashes and smoke from Christiania's side. The big speedboat reeled, then turned crazily, almost capsizing. It porpoised and rolled, spinning through yet another sharp turn that almost sent it completely over, and an icy fist seemed to squeeze his heart as he realized no one had it under control.
Eddie couldn't believe he was still alive.
There was no pain, not really. That was shock, a distant corner of his brain observed, since he no longer had a left foot. That has to hurt like hell, that isolated corner thought almost calmly, but he couldn't feel a thing. He raised his head, looking for the rest of his crew, then looked away instantly. There was nothing he could do for Larry or Bjorn, and that same dispassionate observer in his brain told him that if he didn't act quickly, there wouldn't be anything anyone could do for him, either.
His hands moved as if they belonged to someone else, unbuckling his belt, wrapping it around his calf, yanking it as tight as it would go. It wasn't much of a tourniquet, but it was the best he could do . . . and at least it slowed the bleeding some.
The Outlaw's engines were still bellowing their fury, and he felt the boat lurch through yet another unguided turn. That part of his brain which continued stubbornly to function wondered why it hadn't capsized or collided with something yet, but he didn't have time to worry about that, either. The shore was out there somewhere, and if he ran into it at this speed . . .
He dragged himself across the blood-smeared cockpit on his belly, trying not to think about Larry or Bjorn while he did so. It seemed to take an eternity, but finally he reached Larry's broken seat. He felt a tiny stab of gratitude that the roundshot which had killed his friend had also thrown Larry's mangled body out of the way. He didn't know if he could have made himself move it to get at the wheel.
He clawed himself upright, forcing himself somehow up onto his remaining foot, and bent to peer through the blast shield view slit.
He'd taken just a little bit too long to reach the wheel, he realized almost calmly in the seconds he had left.
* * *
Hans banked sharply, fighting to keep the Outlaw in sight as it looped and wove through yet another impossible, writhing turn. He was lower now, trying desperately to see, and he thought he saw someone moving in the cockpit. But he couldn't be sure, and his teeth ground together as the speedboat turned yet again.
The white fiberglass arrowhead trailed spray and foam as it settled briefly onto its new course, and Hans heard his own voice crying out in useless protest as he realized what was going to happen.
More Danish guns were firing now—firing more in desperation than in vengeance. They shrouded the morning in smoke and muzzle flashes, pocked the surface of Wismar Bay with white waterspouts all around the Outlaw, but now the speedboat seemed to lead a charmed life. It charged through the waterspouts, ignoring the Danes' frantic efforts to destroy it.
But then again, it didn't need the Danes. It had its own howling engines, and those engines were its executioners. A three-and-a-half-ton sledgehammer loaded with over a hundred gallons of gasoline and twenty-four eight-inch rockets smashed into an eight-hundred-ton, fifty-eight-gun warship at something in excess of seventy miles an hour.
Vadgaard felt his elation turn to horror as the American ship collided with the Johannes Ingvardt. He'd realized at once that his desperate broadside had managed somehow to score a hit, despite his target's incredible speed. He'd also realized that only blind luck had made that possible, and he'd watched in disbelief as the American's wake twisted and knotted like a berserk serpent writhing in its death agony, obviously with a dead man at the helm.
But then it turned one last time and hurled itself into the very center of his squadron like some arrowhead of vengeance upon its killers. Johannes Ingvardt's frantic effort to repeat Christiania's lucky hit failed, and then both ships vanished in yet another explosion that sent fresh wreckage arcing into the smoke-sick heavens.
The explosion seemed to rip Hans' heart from his body. He stared down at the rising smoke cloud where two of the up-time brothers who had saved his life—and his family's—had ended their own lives, and something snarled inside him.
There. That was the ship. The one whose fire had first crippled the Outlaw and sent it into the weaving dance to its own death.
He banked around, then dropped the nose and lined it up on his brothers' killer.
Vadgaard never knew what prompted him to tear his eyes from Johannes Ingvardt's death. Perhaps it was no more than instinct. Or perhaps it was something else. It didn't really matter.
He looked up to see the flying machine headed directly toward Christiania. There was something about it, about the straight, unwavering line of its course, that suddenly told him he'd been wrong about how harmless it might be.
There was no way he could possibly elevate Christiania's guns high enough to engage a flying target, but his ship, too, was loaded with infantry destined for Wismar, and he bellowed frantic orders.
Hans' target grew rapidly as he peered through his improvised sight. There was movement on the ship's deck, but he paid it no attention. His entire being was focused on stick and rudder pedals, on keeping that ship pinned at the heart of his fury, and he reached out for the firing switches. Given their crude accuracy, Hans was determined not to release the missiles until the last possible moment, at point-blank range. With the plane armed with only four rockets, at stations 3, 4, 5 and 6, he could fire all of them with one flip of his fingers.
Fresh flame spouted from the flying machine, and Vadgaard heard someone screaming. It might have been curses, or it might have been prayers. Either would have worked as well . . . or as poorly.
Three more missiles came scorching down out of the heavens, and this time there was no question about where they were aimed. One of them missed. A second slammed into and through the main deck, but miraculously failed to explode. And the third hit squarely in the center of the foredeck and exploded on contact. Blast and splinters plucked men away like angry hands, the foremast swayed drunkenly and collapsed, and smoke poured up out of the wreckage. Orders warred with panic as officers and petty officers fought to impose order and extinguish the flames before Christiania followed Anthonette and Johannes Ingvardt into destruction.
Vadgaard screamed for the musketeers he had assembled amidships to fire as the flying machine continued directly toward them. Their volley crashed out, discipline overcoming fear.
The flying machine flashed by very low, crossing Christiania in a stuttering buzz of sound. Vadgaard couldn't tell if they had hit it, though he prayed fervently that they had.
The hammer hit Hans in the abdomen, and for a moment, he was back on a bloody field outside Badenburg.
It was the second time a bullet had hit him there, but this time he didn't lose consciousness. Not that it mattered.
He looked down, then covered the hole in his jacket with his left palm. It scarcely slowed the pulsing flood of scalding blood, and then the pain hit, and he knew.
Another memory flashed through his mind. The first time he'd ever seen Sharon, when he'd thought she was the angel of death come to claim him—only to discover that she was an angel of life, who had saved him, instead. But this time, close as she was, she was too far away. He felt his strength flooding away with his blood, carried on the crest of anguish, and there was no way he could last long enough to return to Wismar and land. Not with that wound.
He wasn't the only target the musketeers had hit, either. The controls felt heavy, stiff—heavier and stiffer than his own injuries alone could explain. He didn't have as much control of the aircraft as he would have liked, but it would have to do.
"Hans! Hans, damn it—talk to me!" Jesse half-shouted into the microphone as he pushed his own aircraft as hard as he could toward the clouds of smoke rising from the sea.
He didn't have a complete picture of what was happening, but the radioed reports from Louie Tillman had told him enough. Eddie and Larry's initial strike had been far more successful than Jesse had ever allowed himself to hope . . . only to disintegrate into disaster. The Outlaw was gone—that much Tillman knew for certain—and with it both of the boys. But that wasn't what frightened Jesse, because there was nothing he could do about it. It was too late for that. But Louie had also reported Hans' insane, low-level attack on the Danish ship which had destroyed the Outlaw. Hans hadn't reported. In fact, he had yet to transmit a single word.
"Hans, I know you can fucking well hear me!" Jesse snapped. "Now answer me!"
Silence. But he was close enough now to see the smoke and wreckage to which the invasion force had been reduced. Some of the Danes had already put about, clawing back toward Luebeck and away from the demons which had ravaged them. Others looked as if they were trying to continue toward Wismar, and a few of them were engaged in frantic rescue operations, trying to snatch men from the icy waters before hypothermia killed them. But most of them seemed to be milling around in confusion, still shocked and confused by what had happened. He could see the remaining speedboats hovering between the invaders and Wismar, and even as he watched one of the brigs which had been holding its course turned away rather than face them.
But Hans. Where was Hans?
Jesse searched desperately for the other Belle. It had to be here somewhere, but where—?
Then he saw it. Saw it crabbing back around in a wide, awkward circle. One rocket still hung on its hard point under the port wing. Obviously, the firing mechanism had malfunctioned—not surprisingly, given the crude nature of the jury-rigged installation—but that wasn't what brought Jesse's heart into his throat. That was left to the thin streamer of vapor trailing behind it, and he bit his lip. That silvery skein of blood could only be gasoline . . . which meant Hans had been hit at least once.
Jesse held his heading, racing to meet the other plane, then swung in to match Hans' course.
"Hans?" he tried the radio again. Again, no response. Carefully positioned off the other's left wing and looking at the half-dozen holes punched through the formica skin of Hans' aircraft, he felt chillingly certain why.
He edged in as close as he dared, and he bit his lip harder as he saw Hans. The boy's head hung forward wearily, and he seemed unaware Jesse was even there for at least a minute and a half. But then, slowly, his head turned. He was too far away for Jesse to see his expression, but everything about the way he sat, how slowly he turned his head, told Jesse he was badly hurt.
Jesse frantically gestured the hand signal to land, pointing vigorously back toward Wismar in an order to return. Hans stared at him across the emptiness between their aircraft, and then, slowly, he shook his head.
Jesse pointed again, even harder, and Hans altered course. But not toward Wismar. Instead, he slowly rolled to the right, turning back out to sea, and Jesse knew what he intended to do.
"No, Hans," he whispered. "Please. It's just a fucking battle, and we've already won it anyway." But even as he uttered the plea, he knew it was useless. Even if Hans' radio wasn't damaged at all, he wouldn't have listened. Not now.
There was nothing Jesse could do to stop him. Nothing anyone could do. For Hans Richter, it wasn't just a battle. It wasn't even just a war.
They fought wars, for whatever remote purposes seemed good to them, sitting in their palaces. Fought them atop the broken bones of German families; trampling their way through the entrails of German mothers; slaughtering fathers in their little shops. Hans Richter was fighting a crusade.
Jesse watched the other plane as its nose dropped. Watched Hans adjust his course with all the assurance and skill he had learned so well. Watched the aircraft accelerate.
"It's coming back!"
Vadgaard turned away from the fire fighters at the shout. The flames were almost under control, but if the flying machine hit them with still more missiles . . .
Only it wasn't a flying machine this time. There were two of them now, and Vadgaard's heart plummeted. How many of those devil machines did the Americans have? And what was he supposed to do with them and two more of their accursed naval vessels between him and his objective?
Then he realized that one of the flying machines was diving.
It wasn't quite like its first attack. This dive was steeper, faster. And it wasn't headed for Christiana this time. This time it was headed for Lossen, one of his two remaining warships.
He held his breath, waiting for the deadly rain of missiles to begin once more.
But it didn't. And it only took Vadgaard a moment to understand the reason.
Hans wished his radio had been working.
It wouldn't have mattered, in one sense. He already knew what Jesse had been ordering him to do, and there would have been no point in obeying the command. Not as badly as he was bleeding. His thoughts were growing wobbly with shock and blood loss, but he knew that much. Still, he would have liked to say good-bye. To Jesse . . . most of all, to Sharon.
He watched the thirty-gun ship growing before him, but he didn't really see it. Not any more. All he saw was a dark-skinned face, smiling at him, and he smiled back.