Chapter 4
Finders Keepers

25th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Over the Elsanto Mountains, Neveland

Root spent about an hour checking up on his charges and another hour getting familiar with the ship before getting a few hours' sleep and then making the rounds again. There wasn't that much for him to do at present, but things were likely to get rather hectic when they got to their destination. The more they prepared now, the less chaotic it would be later. Or at least that was the idea.
Root made a point to avoid the bridge as he figured that was where Tofels would be, but he knew he'd have to go there eventually. Because the ship didn't have any Marine Fusiliers in the crew to act as masters-at-arms, the task of shipboard security fell to the Blackamoors. Two of them stood shoulder to shoulder in the narrow passageway, blocking the door to the bridge.
"Access to the bridge is restricted," the larger of the two said gruffly.
"I'd hope so," Root replied, "but I've got to report to the Captain and your boss. I'm sure you don't want to keep them waiting."
The two Blackamoors looked at each other somewhat uncertainly, but the big one promptly resumed his stony facade as he said, "Very well then, Lieutenant Maartens, you may pass."
The Blackamoors pressed themselves up against the bulkheads to let Root through. He turned the wheel on the door to unlock it and when he opened it, there were two more Blackamoors in the way on the other side. If the door opened the other way, he would've hit them. If only.
"Come on, gangway, people," Root told the two Blackamoors as he pushed past them.
The Blackamoors promptly seized him.
"Let go a' me, dammit!" Root snapped as he struggled to break free.
The bridge crew was so professional that none of them did any more than steal a brief glance at the scene from their consoles. Tofels, who was standing to the left of the Captain's chair, turned to look at Root in annoyance.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
"Target's about 600 klicks over the border," Root replied. "These things cruise at about 60 knots and it's been nine hours, so I figure we should be there by now."
Tofels didn't seem particularly impressed at his deductive abilities, though.
Tofels turned away and without a direct order to throw Root out, the two Blackamoors let him go. As he was making his way to Captain Romsky, one of the operators said, "Target is in visual range, Captain."
"Put it on screen," the Captain said.
There was a row of four monitors hanging from the overhead so the Captain could see different feeds being piped in. The second screen from the left switched over to one of the ventral cameras. If Root remembered the map correctly, they were currently flying over the suspected crash site in Rodrigo Basin. He wasn't an expert in geology or anything, but the basin seemed more like a crater, either from a meteor or some giant bomb from before the Day of Silence, bigger than anything they had now. Maybe it was a distinction without a difference. It really wasn't what he needed to be most concerned about at the moment.
Resting just off center in the basin was a large disc-shaped object. He didn't have a frame of reference, so he couldn't guess the size. The front quarter was embedded in the ice and the whole thing was tilted at a bit of an angle.
"Looks like an air cruiser," Tofels said. "Have you ever seen anything like it, Captain?"
"No..." Captain Romsky trailed. "No, it doesn't look like any class of ship on record..."
"Can we just hover over the site and have men rope down?"
"No," the Captain replied curtly. "Too risky. We'll set her down somewhere and you can send a ground team."
Tofels turned to Root and said, "Your team goes out there, secures the site and detains any survivors."
That was easy enough for the Blackamoor to say, but pulling it off was another story.
"We don't even know who or what we're dealing with," Root said.
"That is precisely why we're here,: Tofels replied. "To find that out and then to claim anything that we can use. Once the site is secure, we Blackamoors will escort the trucks over to get to work."
"These folks, whoever they are, may not be willing to hand their stuff over to you without a fuss," Root noted.
"Nothing the fine men of the Royal Army can't handle, I'm sure."
Leave it to a Blackamoor to prick at our pride and sneer at you at the same time. Root wasn't so easily baited and the target itself wasn't their only concern.
"And what about any other company we might find out there?" he asked. "Surely we're not the only ones who know about this thing."
The skid marks showed that the object came from the east, so there was a good chance the Palatinians saw it too if it wasn't one of theirs to begin with. The look Tofels gave him indicated that he'd already accounted for that.
Narrowing his eyes, he said, "That's also something you and your men are expected to handle."
If the Palatinians could get more men together on short notice, a single mechanized section wouldn't be enough, but that was something Root would have to deal with later.
"Sir, we've picked up a new contact!" the radar operator exclaimed.
"What is it?" Captain Romsky asked.
"Uncertain, sir."
"Get closer and find out," Tofels demanded.
Confused, the radar operator turned from his console and asked, "Captain?"
"You heard the Centurion," Captain Romsky said. "Proceed. Condition Yellow. Ready guns. Weapons hold."
Different members of the bridge crew promptly echoed the Captain's orders.
"Condition Yellow, aye."
"Ready guns, aye. Weapons hold, aye."
It only took a minute or so until the radar operator announced, "Contact coming into visual range. Three o'clock low."
The contact was close enough to be picked up on the camera. It was an airship with a familiar profile. A flying brick with a stunted superstructure and three big rotors on either side.
"Looks like a Junker-class," Root said. "One of ours?"
"Not likely," Tofels grumbled.
"Transmit the challenge code," Captain Romsky said.
"Transmitting challenge code, aye," the radioman replied.
Root didn't expect anything good to come of the attempt to contact the other ship. Would the government be so paranoid that it would send a second ship without a word of notice? Well, if he was being entirely honest with himself, yes, things had gotten that crazy. Byrandia wasn't the only country that purchased Junker-class cruisers, though. It was probably the Palatinians and they wouldn't be too keen on cooperating.
"Muzzle flare! Incoming!"
Sure enough.
"Condition Red!" Captain Romsky shouted. "Combat posts! Return fire!"
An alarm sounded to alert the crew to go to combat posts as one of the bridge crew echoed, "Condition Red, aye!"
The first volley from the enemy ship narrowly missed them as the gunner bellowed, "Firing starboard guns!"
The ship rolled to line up the big 105-mill Estocs with the target. All three on the starboard side fired at once, causing the whole ship to rock from the recoil then struggle to recorrect its flightpath. Firing the main gun would be trickier, but that wasn't the only card up the Junker Jorg's sleeve.
"Arm missiles!" the Captain ordered.
"Arming missiles, aye!"
While they were busy with that, the next volley came in and this time they hit their mark. The ship shook violently. Root would've been thrown off his feet if he didn't grab onto the back of the Captain's chair. The two Blackamoors at the door were laid out flat.
"We're hit!" a crewman cried, his console blinking with red lights. "Turret Three is down! Fires on Decks Three and Four!"
"Evacuate all civilians from the starboard side!" Captain Romsky said. He then asked the fire controlman, "Do we have missile lock?"
"Twenty more seconds, sir!"
"Fire another volley from the guns!"
"Firing, aye!"
With one of the turrets down, the fore swung portward when the other two fired together. While the helmsman struggled to keep them on course, the fire controlman exclaimed, "We have missile lock!"
There was no time to be happy about it, though, as another operator immediately followed his announcement with "The enemy has missile lock on us too!"
Captain Romsky didn't hesitate.
"Fire all tubes!"
"Firing all tubes, aye!"
Twelve missiles shot up out of the launcher and then arced toward their target, but the exact same sight could be seen on the enemy side.
"Incoming missiles!"
"Shoot them down!" the Captain snapped back. "Evasive maneuvers!"
"Evasive maneuvers, aye!" the helmsman echoed.
The antiaircraft guns thrummed away along with the 12-7s on the deck. Seven guns versus twelve missiles. Root didn't much like those odds. One of the ack-ack guns took out three and the other got two. Though they had a lot less punch, the 12-7s managed to take out five more. That still left two missiles.
One missed. The other didn't.
The initial shock wasn't much worse than when that shell hit earlier, but then the ship immediately went into a spin.
"We've been hit!" a crewman announced. "Starboard aft rotor is down!"
While the helmsman struggled to bring the ship out of its spin before they smashed into the nearest mountainside, Captain Romsky shouted, "Fall back!"
"Captain!" Tofels exclaimed.
Though Captain Romsky had made a habit of deferring to Tofels, in this he was like a completely different person. The lazy fat man waiting around to collect his pension was gone and the seasoned captain of a warship took his place.
"We can't stay in the air, Centurion!" he snapped, then immediately turned his attention back to the bridge crew. "Find a safe place to set her down!"
"Falling back, aye!" the helmsman echoed.
"Lay down some covering fire," the Captain told the fire controlman.
"Covering fire, aye!"
Firing the guns wasn't exactly helping the helmsman regain control of the ship, but if it warded off any additional fire from the enemy, perhaps it was worth it. Then again, if all they managed to do was avoid getting shot out of the sky so they could crash instead, it wasn't much of a trade-off.
In spite of the danger, Captain Romsky sprang from his seat and pointed to a relatively flat slope off to the port side just as they were starting to level out.
"There! Helmsman, set her down there!"
"Setting her down, aye!"
The Captain quickly sat back down and strapped himself in.
"All hands, brace for impact!"
Other members of the bridge crew followed Captain Romsky's example, buckling themselves in as they echoed, "Brace for impact!"
"Brace for impact!"
There wasn't any chair for Root to strap into, so all he could do was hold onto the back of the Captain's chair. It was a good thing he had a pretty strong grip or he would've been thrown around like a ragdoll. They landed hard. It wasn't a crash-landing, but it was close. Root was barely able to hold on. Those poor dumb Blackamoors at the door weren't so lucky, flying up into the overhead, then slamming down onto the deck and being bounced around as the ship shook to the impact. Then when the initial shock subsided, the snowpack underneath them gave way and they started sliding. Root was half-afraid they'd just keep on sliding all the way down the mountain, getting torn up by the rocks along the way, but the ship came to a rest after a few seconds.
Once they appeared to be in the clear, Root looked around to assess the damage. The two badly beaten Blackamoor guards were writhing around on the deck, but the bridge crew seemed mostly fine, expect for one holding a bleeding face. A panel or two had popped loose and smoke was rising from a couple of the consoles, but otherwise everything seemed pretty much intact.
"Well, that was good," Root quipped.
Ignoring Root's comment, Captain Romsky rose from his chair and adjusted his cap.
"Get damage control down to the affected decks," he said. "Make sure there are no fires near the magazines."
If there were fires, they needed all the hands they could get, but as Root was making his way to the door, Tofels called out to him.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I'm going to go help," Root said.
"No one leaves the bridge without my order, Lieutenant," Captain Romsky said tersely, settling back into his chair. "Let the crew do their work. Stand by."
"Yes, sir," Root said reluctantly. There was nothing he could do but wait.
It was about twenty minutes before the bridge was notified that all the fires had been put out. After being told this, Captain Romsky didn't skip a beat and said, "Damage report."
The First Lieutenant--who was the one giving the report and also acted as the ship's Damage Control Officer--replied, "We have hull breaches amidships on the starboard side on Decks Three and Four and aft ventral on Deck Five. We've lost Turret Three, Missile Tubes Four and Five and the starboard aft rotor."
"Nine dead, fourteen wounded."
The First Lieutenant must have been used to this sort of thing, because there wasn't the slightest pause or hitch in his voice as he rattled off the numbers. It usually didn't take much first-hand experience to go numb to people dying in the line of duty. Root knew that all too well.
Captain Romsky was clearly used to taking losses as well, because he didn't give the casualties more than a moment's thought before asking, "When can we be airborne again?"
"Uncertain, sir," the First Lieutenant replied. "A week, maybe, if we can repair the damaged rotor."
"Report back in 48 hours."
"Aye, sir."
The First Lieutenant did an about face and exited the bridge. Though the thought of being stranded on the side of a mountain in the freezing cold for 48 hours at best wasn't terribly appealing to Root, it bothered Tofels a lot more.
"What about the mission?" the Blackamoor demanded.
Still in his assertive mode, Captain Romsky told him, "Right now, my only concern is the welfare of my ship. So long as it doesn't involve the people who are fixing my ship, I don't care what you do, Centurion."
"Understood," Tofels replied with a nod. He then turned to Root and said, "Lieutenant Maartens, meet me in my quarters in two hours."
Great. Just what he needed.