Aaren opened the speaking tube to the forward weapons. “Horace.”
There was a click. “Yeah?” He was looking back toward Aaren as he spoke into the tube.
“The flayers are gaining on us.”
He craned his neck but couldn’t see past the aft castle. “We’ve got more sail than they do.”
Aaren shrugged. “Maybe, but I think the Sky Hawk is heavier than their ship. “Whatever, they’re gaining. We need to come up with some kind of strategy before they get much closer.”
“Garrick says we have to stay away from their ram or we’ll get locked together.”
Aaren nodded agreement. “Yeah, he told me that too.”
Horace thought for a moment then came to a decision. “We need to use our ram but not head-on. We need to try for a glancing attack to shear off some of their weapons or masts. We’ll fire our ballistae when we get close enough but they’ll be able to fire at us too.” His expression was serious.
He continued. “Hold a direct heading until the last possible minute then, when we fire, shear off just enough to avoid their ram.”
“At that range, the flayers will be close enough to use their mental powers,” Mira interjected. “Elric should get some of his best spells ready.”
“Good idea.” Aaren raised his voice to carry over the whole ship. “Jon! Get up here!” He turned back to the speaking tube. “What else?”
Horace stroked his beard. “After we pass the flayers, have the catapults fire at close range for maximum damage. Then let out every bit of sail we have and hope it’s enough to get away from them before they can get turned around.”
Aaren agreed quickly. “You’re the Battle Master.”
Jon mounted the stairs. “We’re turning to fight the flayers?”
“Yep. When we get close enough, Elric will use some of his magic on them. You’ll have to take the wheel from him when that happens.”
“Twelve hundred cubits, Captain.”
“Twelve hundred, aye. Belay that and get back to your post.”
The sailor nodded. “Aye-aye, Captain.” He ran down to the main deck.
Aaren raised his voice. “Garrick! Take in the sails. Prepare to turn for a ramming attack.”
The bosun waved then relayed the orders to the men. “Take in the jib sail and everything on the forward mast!” His men sprang to obey, hauling on ropes to pull up the sails. The Sky Hawk slowed immediately.
“Hard over, pilot.”
Elric spun the wheel and tilted the column too. “Hard over, aye.” They’d discovered that rolling the ship as it turned made for a tighter turning radius but the combined motion also made some of the men turn green and hang on for dear life.
Aaren had to grab the railing himself at the bizarre motion of the skies around them. It made him dizzy. He felt himself grow heavier during the turn too. He shook his head as Elric straightened out the ship from its radical turn.
“Ramming speed!” he shouted, throwing off his dizziness.
“Ramming speed, aye,” he heard Garrick respond, but the men weren’t as quick to recover from the turn. They staggered as they adjusted the sails.
“Range and bearing,” Elric shouted to anyone listening.
Mira waved and said something to one of her two assistants. He nodded and peered through the scope on the ballista. There was a click from the speaking tube as he opened it on his end. “900 cubits, 3 degrees port.”
“Three degrees port, aye,” Elric responded, turning the wheel to compensate.
“Steady ahead, aye.” He turned the wheel back.
“Two degrees, down angle,” the man sang out.
Aaren turned to watch how Elric handled this added dimension to their course maneuvering.
“Two degrees, down angle, aye.” The slender mage bit his lip then pushed gently on the wheel. The column tilted slightly forward and the distant stars drifted up from the bow of the ship as it sank two degrees from their previous heading.
Elric eased back on the column. The stars stopping rising over the bow. “Steady ahead, aye.”
“500 cubits, steady ahead.”
The mind flayers had seen their maneuvering and had left off fighting the fires on their ship. They were scrambling for their big weapons.
Aaren called ahead. “Horace, how much longer until we’re in ballista range?”
Although in theory all their weapons had an infinite range in the weightlessness of space outside the air envelope, in practical terms of being able to effectively track and hit a target, their range was considerably less. But even that was still many times what it would have been on a planet. Of the four crew-served weapons on board, the two ballistae were the most accurate. The monster crossbows, although they were only a third the size of those built for a siege, were equipped with telescopic sights and dwarven crafted mountings that made them deadly accurate, killing machines.
Horace had his eye glued to the telescope on his ballista. “Almost there.”
Tension climbed until it was thick enough to cut with a knife. The crews crouched over their weapons as if carved from stone, only a slight trembling in their muscles revealing they were alive.
The mind flayer ship grew larger in their sights.
Horace’s voice took on a soothing, monotonous drone. “Steady. Steady. Hold your fire. Hooold your fire. Almost there, almost there. Just a little longer . . .”
“. . . FIRE!”
There was a murderous crack! as the two ballistae released their gigantic bolts. The deadly missiles hissed away faster than the eye could follow. The crews went into a frenzy reloading their weapons, not even pausing to watch the results. If they had taken the time, they would have been proud of themselves – their long hours of practice had paid off. One ballista bolt slammed into the crotch between the three points of the long ram on the enemy ship and split it, like an arrow slicing an apple in two. The other tore a gaping hole through the upper part of the shell above the highest railing as it plunged into the flaming interior of the ship. Fire curled up through the new hole in the shell of the ship.
Aaren’s heart leaped. “That’s it!” Then he saw the mind flayers returning their fire and fear gripped him. Horace saw it at the same time and their warning yell was simultaneous.
The crew dove for cover.
Horace felt something tug at his cloak as he dove for the deck and heard the hiss of a ballista bolt as it missed him by a hair. There was a dull thud and the ship shuddered to the blow of a heavy boulder. He waited a moment more and when nothing further happened he leapt to his feet. “Keep re-loading,” he ordered. He glanced back at the aft catapults and saw they were ready to take their shot as they passed the enemy ship. On the deck below he saw Garrick leaning far out over the rail, inspecting the ship for damage. Although he admired the man's courage, he wondered at the wisdom of making himself an easy target. With a mental shrug, he dismissed him from his thoughts and turned back to the battle. He glanced through his telescope; the mind flayers were busy re-loading as well. He started to straighten up and then something inside the enemy ship caught his eye. He stared disbelievingly.
Behind the lowest railing and the ballista that was mounted there, was a door leading down into the belly of the ship. Sometime during the last few minutes, the door had been opened and through it, he could see a man fighting hand to hand with a mind flayer!
He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, then looked again.
The man was still there, and he appeared to be winning. He was a dark-haired man, bearded, well built, and from the way he moved, more than a little bit familiar with a sword. Even as Horace watched, the stranger overcame his opponent’s defenses and thrust his blade directly through the creature’s heart. Ichor spurted in a thousand directions and the world was blessed with the passing of another mind flayer. Smoke swirled in the doorway and Horace lost sight of the valiant fighter.
He snatched up the speaking tube. “Captain! There’s a man on board that ship! A human. And he’s killing the flayers!”
“What?” came his confused reply. “Where?”
“That lower deck, where the smoke is coming through the doorway.”
“I don't see anything.”
“He was there a minute ago! The smoke got in the way.”
Aaren shook his head. “Nothing we can do about it. We’re almost ready to ram.”
“But we’ve got to rescue him,” he said urgently. “We have to!”
“I said, there's nothing we can do about it. Forget him.” Aaren hung up the speaking tube as the enemy ship loomed ever closer. He gestured to Jon. “Get ready to take over from Elric as soon as we hit.”
He glanced back at the enemy ship and his eyes widened. “Now! Turn, turn!”
Elric gasped in fear and spun the wheel wildly tilting the column over nearly 45 degrees as he did. The Sky Hawk rolled like a log on a millpond as it turned so sharply the sails lost the magical current and flapped uselessly for a moment.
Everyone grabbed the nearest rail or stanchion as the sky rolled and turned sickeningly around them.
“Level out, level out!” Aaren bellowed.
Elric fought the wheel. “I’m trying!”
Horace snarled at the men on the ballista as the sky finally slowed its insane motion around them. “Keep reloading then fire at will.” He bounded down off the forecastle, keeping an eye on the mind flayer ship.
He double-checked his wrist to make sure the bracelet Elric and Aaren called an air suit was tightly strapped to his arm. The tiny platinum disk looked like a miniature compass but with magical inscriptions on it instead of glass and a floating needle. In a vacuum, it would create a tiny envelope of air around a person, like a suit of air. It didn’t create gravity or provide any way to move around, but it would last for three days in case of a disaster in space. A tiny slot on one side provided a way to refuel it with copper coins every three days. There were dozens of them in emergency lockers all over the ship.
He swung a leg over the railing of the ship and crouched, eyeballing the distance and motion between the two ships. If he could jump when they were just at the right angle to each other, his momentum should be enough to carry him from the Sky Hawk over to the mind flayer ship to rescue the trapped fighter – assuming he didn’t miss and keep on going forever into space.