For over a week they continued toward the sun. Each day was like the last; get up, eat, clean the ship, practice their maneuvers, and perform dry runs with the weapons. The Knights continued taking turns at the wheel to ensure the loss of one or two of them didn’t leave the rest without a helmsman. Then it was time for lunch. After that, there was a discussion, usually pointless, on various strategies for navigating. Some of them even sounded like they might work, but without any way of testing them, they didn’t dare try something that might get them even more lost than they were now.
The rest of the day was given over to individual pursuits. Some of the men played Whirly, a complicated game consisting of both dice and cards. It was a common barroom game, one that often made paupers of wealthy men and vice-versa. Others gathered around the weapon turrets and told stories of ancient battles, monsters, and heroes. For a while, there was a brief surge of interest in a knife-throwing tournament but that quickly faded when it became obvious Marak could easily beat anyone on board. The loss of a knife that missed its target and sailed serenely into space while its owner watched helplessly was the final nail in the coffin. When the afternoon was over, it was time for dinner. Toward evening, Elric got into the habit of casting a spell of darkness just in front of the ship to blot out the sun and create the illusion of night. Then it was time for bed and the night watch. The next day they started all over.
Aaren and Mira found plenty of time to further their growing romance. Although they were still diffident about lovemaking in such tight quarters, the first opportunity that presented itself in better circumstances would be eagerly grasped. Although now and then a sly wink came their way, no one on board said anything about their obvious fondness for each other.
When their dull routine was finally interrupted, it could hardly have happened in a more spectacular fashion. And when it was over, their navigation problem was solved as well as their boredom.
They were whiling away the hours of another day when an alien ship appeared out of the void with breathtaking suddenness. One moment the skies about them were empty, and the next, a bizarre-looking ship appeared out of nowhere slowing down from system speed to banking speed then airspeed, all in the blink of an eye. The crew members lounging on deck gasped in surprise at the near-instantaneous appearance of the strange apparition.
Star engines always stopped when the atmosphere around their ship came within 2000 cubits of another atmosphere, either around a planet, moon, or ship. If there was no atmosphere, then the engines automatically stopped 2000 cubits from the surface. Elric and Aaren couldn’t tell from the captured books and journals if this was a builtin safety measure or something inherent in the nature of star engines.
So this new ship was 2000 cubits away when it appeared out of the void, but some details could be seen fairly well. Its basic shape was that of a sphere cut in half, flat side down. Jutting balconies bespoke several interior decks. There was a single round window toward the top, almost like the eye of a Cyclops. It was painted a dull, burnt orange color. Three masts stood up from the dome, cross ways to their line of flight, their shimmering sails half-furled. A long, slender ram completed the picture the strange ship presented.
It was also on fire.
Smoke billowed out of jagged holes on one side (port and starboard were difficult to discern on a round ship) and one of the upper railings was bent and broken as if it had been on the receiving end of heavy catapult fire. A flag pole that was flying a jagged, black pennant had broken in half and the top half was dangling limply, held in place only by a single rope. Through a doorway on the second balcony, they could see flames inside the alien ship, flickering and dancing, crisping the sides of the door and climbing out and up the sides of the ship. The limits of the air envelope around the ship were plainly visible because of the dense smoke, it looked like a gigantic, gray egg surrounding the burning ship.
“Look,” shouted one of the men, pointing at some robed figures fighting the fire. “There are people on board!”
“We have to help them!” bellowed Horace, springing to his feet and rushing to the railing on the main deck.
Katrina clapped her hands excitedly. “Oh goody,” she squealed, “A rescue! Perfect material for a new ballad.”
Aaren bounded up to the forecastle and put his eye to the telescope mounted there. He could see that the alien craft bristled with heavy weapons, at least three ballistae, and possibly one other weapon of indeterminate type. There were heavy, protective spikes jutting out over the second balcony and the main body of the ship was totally enclosed and well-armored. There was something odd about the robed and hooded figures. He couldn’t put his finger on it but it sent a chill down his spine. He had long ago learned to trust the hunches and intuition that gave priests their wisdom and insight and right now his gut was telling him in no uncertain terms, the distant figures on the alien ship were dangerous.
Mira scrambled up beside. “Aaren! Something’s not right!”
He nodded. “I feel it too.” Mira wasn’t a priest, but her intuition was almost as strong as his. “Garrick! Full sails! Get us out of here!” He spun the wheel without waiting for Garrick’s answer.
Katrina realized the ship was turning and came running. “What are you doing?”
Elric popped out of the navigator’s cabin with an open book in his hand. He waved frantically at his friends. “Hey! I found a drawing of it! Those ships are used by mind flayers!” His words echoed over the ship, freezing the crew with the implications.
Mind flayers were some of the most feared creatures in the world. They were humanoids with hideous, glistening mauve-colored skin and white, pupil-less eyes. Although they were fierce fighters with amazing mental powers, their most feared attribute was their diet; they ate the brains of their victims, preferring the brains of thinking creatures if possible. Even one mind flayer was a force to be reckoned with. The thought of an entire ship of them was paralyzing even to the bravest warrior.
“By Ashima,” whispered Marak, voicing the fears shared by all of them. “A whole ship full!”
Katrina had gone white as a sheet at Elric’s words. One of the stories her parents used to tell her was about a battle they had seen between a group of battle-hardened warriors and two mind flayers. The gruesome mind flayers had won easily. Other children were kept in line with stories of the boogie man; Katrina's parents had used the mind flayers for the same purpose and she now felt as if all her childhood fears were coming true. Her lips trembled as she sent up a desperate prayer to Aaren’s healer god.
Like her red-haired companion, Mira was unable to keep a quaver out of her voice. “Aaren, we need system speed. Now!”
“No can do.”
“What!?” She stared at him in shock.
A horrified babble broke out on the upper decks as Aaren's reply was relayed from man to man.
“We can’t get out here,” he said tersely. “Any time a ship is within 2000 cubits of another gravity well, it won’t accelerate to anything above airspeed. We have to get outside of that radius if we want to accelerate. Otherwise – forget it.”
Mira was stunned. She dimly recalled hearing him and Elric discuss something about radii of influence and hard stops and such, but it hadn’t seemed very important at the time, just another one of their endless, academic arguments.
“They’ve seen us,” somebody cried.
She whirled around so fast she almost fell.
It was true.
The mind flayers had stopped fighting the raging fires on their ship and were pointing at them. Several were scrambling to arm the ballistae and the other weapon that she now saw was a catapult. Even as she watched, the enemy ship began turning in their direction and moving forward.
Aaren began ringing the bell attached to the rail overlooking the main deck. “Battle stations,” he yelled. “Battle stations! All hands to battle stations! On the double! Horace! It’s up to you!” The big fighter turned and threw himself up the stairs to the fo'c'sle.
The ringing alarm cut through the men’s frozen panic and restored a sense of purpose. Over the sudden thunder of pounding footsteps, she heard Horace’s voice. “You heard the Captain, move! Get the lead out! Move it, move it! You! Secure that rope! Ammunition crews to the hold! MOVE IT!” The crew for the forward port ballista bounded past Mira as she ran for the starboard one. They fell to, reading their huge weapon and its deadly bolt. Behind Aaren, she could see the catapult crews doing the same to their weapons.
“Captain!” Garrick’s voice echoed urgently, too pressed for time to use the speaking tubes.
“We’ve got to stay away from that ram of theirs. It’ll pierce our hull and lock us together. They’ll swarm all over us!”
“Are you sure?”
“I saw it happen dozens of times when the T’thalians and the Carrzulmans mixed it up a few years back. T’thalians use a piercing ram to lock two ships together then slice ‘em apart while they try to separate ‘em.”
He ground his teeth. “Tell Horace!” He glanced at the sails billowing overhead and looked forward and his eyes widened. “And get the jib sail out! We need all the speed we can get!”
“Jib sail, aye.”
He heard Garrick relaying orders. Moments later the ship lurched forward slightly as the jib sail on the bow caught the magical currents and opened with an echoing crack.
The ship surged ahead smoothly but was it enough?
Their captured books and journals had been crystal clear about combat in space. It was harder to avoid ship-to-ship combat than it was to initiate it. Unless the defending ship was significantly faster than the attacker, every time they tacked and turned, the attacker could cut across the triangle and close the distance between them. Unless the pursuing ship made a mistake, they would eventually catch their quarry and battle would be joined.
He kept a close eye on the enemy ship. The Sky Hawk maneuvered like a wooden tub. While it was busy trying to turn tail and run, the mind flayers had closed the distance between them. Now, with a stern chase, it was hard to tell but it looked like they were closing on the Sky Hawk. “Someone give me a range to the flayers!” he called to no one in particular.
Moments later a sailor ran past him to the stern with a scope in his hand. “Fourteen hundred cubits, Captain!”
“Fourteen hundred, aye. Give me the range every hundred cubits.”
“Every hundred cubits, aye-aye, Captain.”
The mind flayers had finished arming their weapons, leaving several them free to resume their fire fighting duties. Good. Maybe that would split their attention and force them to make mistakes.
Elric joined him. Aaren gave him the wheel and stepped forward to examine the ship. The two ballistae were on the forecastle but the mind flayer ship was directly astern, rendering them useless unless the Sky Hawk turned for a broadside. That left only the two catapults on the aft castle deck. They did more damage than ballista bolts but were harder to aim accurately at moving targets.
“Why isn’t there a ballista and catapult at each end of the ship?” he asked the world at large. “It makes more sense that way.”
Elric heard his rhetorical question and snorted. “Who knows? According to his journal, Blanrus was in the middle of retrofitting the ship when we captured it. Maybe it was like that and he changed it.”
“Thirteen hundred cubits, Captain.”
“Thirteen hundred, aye.” He exchanged glances with Elric. “Even with all our sails out, they’re closing on us. It looks like we’re about to get our first taste of ship-to-ship fighting in space.”
The wizard grimaced. “Let’s hope it’s not our last.”