Chapter 14
Kicking in the Front Door

5th of Fourthmoon, Saintclair 12
E29, Elsanto Mountains, Neveland

Private Schooner's legs gave out from under him and he collapsed into the snow. The snow didn't provide much cushioning from the rock underneath. As if hitting the ground wasn't painful enough, he was given a sharp kick to the gut for falling. He might have thrown up if there was anything left on his stomach. Instead, he just pitifully dry heaved while the soldier holding his rope dragged him back to his feet.
He couldn't remember anything between the time he was talking to Sergeant Hight in the buggy and when he woke up in the brig of the Palatinians' warship. They took him to a room where someone beat on him for ten minutes straight without even asking a single question. Then they brought out a blowtorch. They didn't even have to touch him with it. The threat was more than enough to get the point across. He offered to tell them anything they wanted to know. What they wanted to know, unfortunately, was the location of the Junker Jorg.
They tied his hands behind his back and gave him about three meters of rope as a lead. They brought him back to where the buggy was. Helms, Cockburn, Cale Russo and his dogs were still lying where they were killed. From there Schooner had to guide the Palatinians the rest of the way.
Schooner hated himself for his cowardice, but they say everyone has their breaking point. Maybe his came sooner than for some other people, but the Palatinians wouldn't have stopped until they got what they wanted, or until he was dead.
There was no reason anyone else had to die. So long as they surrendered, what reason did the Palatinians have for killing them? Whatever was at the target site, the Palatinians could have it. It wasn't worth anyone else dying.
Back on his feet, he trudged on to the jeers of his captors. One of his eyes was swollen shut, so that didn't make things any easier. After about another hour, they rounded the side of the mountain they were on and the Junker Jorg came into view on the next mountain over.
"There..." Schooner said weakly. "There it is... Now... you promised..."
Schooner turned back to his captors, but one of them got around behind him, clapping a gloved hand over his mouth. He didn't even feel the blade go into his back, just the dull thump of the crossbar hitting his ribs. Even if he wanted to scream, he couldn't.
The Palatinian soldier held him fast until the strength went out of his body, then dumped him unceremoniously down the slope. As he tumbled down, he thought he could hear laughing.

* * *

Captain Romsky sat at his desk writing in the captain's log. He would have liked to report more progress, but short-handed as they were, it was a wonder things were progressing much at all. Lieutenant Bouche was ready to attempt an air trial tomorrow. He wasn't 100% sure the damaged turbine would work like it was supposed to, but supposedly the Junker-class was capable limping by on three turbines, so even if five of them were working, it would be enough to get by, so long as they didn't get into another air battle.
That made it a question of the Palatinians. If they only had the one air cruiser from before, the situation was somewhat manageable. However, with the two failed scouting missions, the odds didn't seem to favor the Byrandian side. If he had operational control, he would have aborted the mission, but that decision was in the hands of that black-faced fanatic. He wouldn't stop until they were all dead.
Captain Romsky looked up from his log. It couldn't possibly be... Gunshots... Here, on the ship?
He reached for his phone and started to dial up the bridge for a situation report, but the door swung open and two men with rifles burst in, quickly checking the corners of the room, then training their weapons on him. They were followed by another soldier armed with a pistol, apparently an officer.
The officer pointed his pistol at Captain Romsky--as if they actually needed to have three guns on him--and said, "Your hands up, if you please."
It wasn't like the Captain had a pistol or anything in his desk, not that he could shoot three people before being shot himself. He raised his hands without a fuss. If they meant to kill him, there wasn't much he could do about it. This seemed to satisfy the officer as he pulled his pistol back. He could still shoot at a moment's notice, but the barrel wasn't pointed at Captain Romsky at least. It also didn't change the fact that two rifles were still fixed on him, so his situation hadn't improved much.
"We go to bridge," the officer said. "Tell everyone to surrender so there is no more bloody business. Surrender and I guarantee your lives."
It was hard to argue with terms like that. Fools could bleat about the pride and honor of the Royal Navy, but a proud and honorable corpse was still nothing but worm food. There were things worth dying for, but pride and honor weren't on the list.
"Very well," Captain Romsky replied. "I trust you know the way."
The officer nodded, then pointed to the door with his pistol.
"After you, Captain."
Captain Romsky got up from his desk. His body seemed heavier than usual. The trip to the bridge never seemed to take so long. Even if he was crazy enough to try stalling by taking the wrong path, it would be a wasted effort. Because the Palatinians used the Junker-class as well, they already had a complete understanding of the ship's layout, even the classified compartments. According to intel, there was hardly any customization to distinguish the airships of one country from another's. Perhaps it wasn't the best idea for enemy nations to buy their hardware from the same supplier.
The Blackamoors kept a pair of guards posted on either side of the door to the bridge at all times. The door was left open, so the Captain could see that three of the four were lying dead on the deck. Inside, four enemy soldiers were holding up the bridge crew. Naturally, under the circumstances, none of the crewmembers were going to announce his entry. Captain Romsky gave them a wave, a feeble effort to show them that the situation was under control.
Rather than risk any trouble having the radioman operate the ship's PA, he went over to the console and did it himself. As Captain, you get used to other people doing things for you, but there are times when you have to do things for yourself.
Holding up the mic, he said, "Attention all hands, attention all hands, this is the Captain speaking. We have been boarded. I repeat, we have been boarded. All hands are ordered to stand down and surrender. I repeat, all hands are ordered to stand down and surrender. You will comply with all lawful instructions and in exchange our lives have been guaranteed. That is all."
Captain Romsky set down the mic and looked to the Palatinian officer.
"Will that suffice?" he asked.
"Yes, it is good," the officer replied. "Here we think all you Byrandians are mad, but you are man of sense."
A man of sense, he says. Yes, but being a man of sense gave the Captain little comfort. Saving the lives of some 180 people did little to assuage a stupid part of his brain that condemned him as a coward. He would have to live with it somehow. It certainly beat dying with the alternative.