It was over. The Champion of Clan Bloodfist looked over the flotsam and jetsam that had once been the greatest fleet in the history of the Scro Empire, shattered and broken like so many forgotten toys. At least, they would be if the blood and body parts weren’t floating serenely between them. His blood brother Corin, the clan leader, was no longer pouring blood from the wound in his throat where a stray shard of broken metal from their shattered rail had pierced it, but he was still unconscious and whether or not he would live or die remained very much anybody’s guess, especially since the healer was only Sarga’s acolyte. Sarga was dead, killed when their primary helm was crushed by rough-hewn accelerator shot. They were adrift in the Void, and all around them the noose tightened as the butterfly-shaped vessels of the Imperial Elven Navy Fleet, easily three times the numbers they had any reason to suspect, swarmed the outer limits of the shattered remains of Borka, prepared to pick them off if they dared to navigate the dangerous, oddly floating rocks and escape their deadly trap.
“Helm’s down, sir!” Thorgir, their Artillery Commander, bellowed too loudly through his ringing ears. “Shall I get some straws?”
The Champion considered it. Elves thought that orcs kept lifejammers aboard ship as backups because they were evil bastards who had few qualms about wasting lives. And that was true of some orcs perhaps. The expenses of major helms were also a contributing factor; lifejammers were much cheaper. But mostly it was because mages were in much shorter supply than they were among elves, and chances were that if your helm had been destroyed, the best of your three Warpriests was already dead. Anyone could pilot a lifejammer, but they drained life energy, not magic power.
The tradition among the Bloodfist clan was to draw straws. But the Clan Champion knew that none of the others had his training. He knew that the rest of the Clan Bloodfist’s dozen Mantis ships, overcrewed to seventy-five apiece for this initiative, were relying on him as their military leader to get them out of this; especially since their Clan Leader Corin was lying in a pool of his own blood, hovering between life and death.
“Sir?” urged Thorgir.
The Clan Champion hissed between his tusks and stood up, Corin’s blood running freely from his hands where they’d been clasped around his throat to staunch the bleeding. “Yeoman!” he roared, running for the hatchway, “Signal the clan that I am taking the helm and they are to follow me precisely! Invite all who would join us to follow!”
“Sir?” exclaimed the Yeoman, stunned by these unorthodox orders.
“You heard me, damn you!” he bellowed, and he leaped through the hatch and somersaulted so that he was properly oriented to the gravity plane. When he banged open the door into the grapple control room the orcs at the machines started in surprise. The Champion glanced about and his eyes found one of the goblins, who were pumping grease into the right claw gears. “Ghost!” he commanded. “Take the canvas off the lifejammer.”
Tiny Ghost paled. “Gul, karr,” he affirmed, probably assuming that he was about to be ordered into the helm himself because the orders from the deck would not have reached him yet; but he obeyed the command.
The lifejammer was innocuous enough; a simple chair, though this one was well-padded for a secondary helm, as though the artisan had been aware of its purpose and was working to compensate. The only visible difference between it and the helm that was now in pieces and likely covered with gore was that this one had thick armrests and was equipped with leather restraints.
“Matey!” came a cry from upstairs. “There’s one of them smaller Men-o-War bearing down on us, sir!”
The Champion stopped hesitating. “All hands prepare to go to full tactical!” he cried back through the brass speaking-tube that carried the orders to the upper deck. “Stand by to fasten restraints,” he ordered the small goblin.
“Sir?” Ghost questioned. But it was too late; the Champion was in the helm.
He felt the familiar spelljammer’s trance take him, washing through his consciousness like water over desert, and his senses expanded to be aware of the ship as if it were his own body. Immediately he was assaulted by an excruciating stab of pain in his fifth cervical vertebra, corresponding to the shattered bridge. There was nothing left of Sarga but a smear; he could see it now as his awareness ran a visual over the entirety of the Sword of Courage, their vessel. He would mourn the loss, for Sarga had been a friend.
Their heavy catapult was in pieces, translating roughly to a whiplash feeling between his shoulder blades, and its crew was dead. Part of the upper rail was missing; it was this injury that had wounded Corin, but that was really cosmetic and the Matey barely felt that in his own body at all. Their crest blade was severely warped; they would not be able to use it for its intended purpose, which was to scuttle ships along their keels. The Champion could see the elven ship coming through the strangely-hovering meteors that had once been the planet Borka, and knew he would not be able to get the Mantis moving in time; but its progress was slowed by an unexpected shotput-sized rock with impeccable timing. The ship took a pot-shot at them anyway. Their last minute effort to evade that stone of the gods turned what might have been a killing blow from a catapult stone into a grazing shot that bounced off of the already-damaged crest blade.
The goblin fastened the leather restraints around his wrists to bolt him into the helm, and then the ankle cuffs were also locked into place. Tendrils of sinister red light snaked their way out of the lifejammer and began to attach themselves to the Matey’s blood vessels like macabre veins of their own. A low pitched heartbeat thrumming began to echo throughout the ship, only it was a keening funeral dirge instead of the life-affirming thrum of a magic-powered helm.
The pain really wasn’t so bad; nothing like what he’d been expecting, having never been in a lifejammer before. But it did insinuate itself into every synapse and nerve ending. “I have the helm!” he cried. “Katha!”
“Sir!” the Sailmaster yelled back.
“I am taking command of the sail crew. Follow my coordinates exactly as I tell them to you!”
“Gul, karr!” he returned, though the First Mate knew he must be thoroughly confused.
Suddenly grateful for the rigid chain-of-command, he gauged the position of the oncoming elven ship, and called out, “Pitch eight up, all ahead full! All hands brace for impact!” And he extended his will to charge ahead with everything in his power.
The Sword of Courage rocketed forward. The Champion could hear Sailmaster Katha crying out his orders on the upper deck. They barely got their nose up in time. He figured the last thing in the world the elven ship had been expecting was for the crippled scro Mantis to charge along its forward gravity plane and scour their bow with those skate blades on the Mantis keel. A metallic scraping noise screeched through the grapple control room as the sharp bow of the elven corvette skimmed along the front torso of the Mantis ship, likely leaving a good scar; but then the bow of crystalline wood crumpled in on itself as the Mantis continued along its slightly-upward trajectory. The last thing the Matey heard as the ships parted was the screaming of the corvette’s crew as the heavier Mantis ship disrupted their gravity plane and threw everything aboard forward towards the Mantis. He had a momentary flash of guilt, but there was nothing else to be done.
“Who’s with us, Rathgar?” the Matey called out to his boatswain as they cleared the elven ship’s rigging.
“Sir!” he called back. “We have . . . I’d say twenty Manti and half a dozen smaller craft!”
“Are all the Bloodfist ships accounted for?” he demanded. It would be ideal to get as many as he could away from this slaughter, but his duty – and the true concern of his heart – was with his clan.
There was a delay before the response. The Champion tried not to gnash his teeth in frustration. Every second would cost them lives.
“Confirmed!” Rathgar acknowledged. “All surviving ships of the clan are following!”
“Right then,” the Matey muttered to himself. He was rusty at this. Gods, it had been years. He would need all of his focus and concentration. Muttering a prayer to his gods, he allowed himself to slip deeper into the trance. Becoming aware of a persistent aching pain from the drain of the lifejammer and drawing upon a skill he had developed for his own survival in another life, he used it to fuel his focus.
He sensed the planetoids of Borka before him; could almost smell them as much as see them. “Pitch up twenty!” he cried, and the crew tilted the topsails to aid the Mantis in its climb. “Hard starboard!” he called; and the sail crew hauled close to make the sharp turn. One of the hindmost Manti didn’t make it; the collision tore the ship apart on the iron rock. He realized that he was pulling away from the rest of his impromptu flotilla and he made himself slow down, which was contrary to every screaming instinct he had. The lifejammer didn’t like that; it sent bolts of pain through his synapses like an electric current and he gasped with the strain of it.
There was one advantage to having been kept as far away from the glory as possible, the Champion mused. Their clan was in the best position to escape from this disastrous manoeuvre. By now, most of the Elven Fleet would be on the other side of Borka, contending with the mines as they followed their prey into the asteroid cluster. The natural lust of battle would take any ship who could find an excuse into the field to claim glory and prizes. So the rear blockade was likely to be insufficient to deal with the force about to be brought against it.
“Yeoman!” he commanded. “Signal the fleet to prepare to receive our orders! And damn the flags! Use the drum signals!”
“Sir?” sputtered the Yeoman in astonishment.
With the searing pain in his resisting nerves, the First Mate was in no mood for questions, never mind the change in procedure. “Did I stutter?!” he peeled from the back of his throat.
“Sir! No sir!” gulped the Yeoman; and the drum tattoo rolled out.
The Matey bared his tusks in a fierce grin. The elves might have some of their flag signals decoded by now, but there would be no good way they could have learned the drum code. It wouldn’t have been possible to do this in almost any other circumstance, but Borka was an anomaly; although each body had its own individual gravity, they shared a collective air envelope. The drums would ring out through the air of the shattered world, uniting the intent of the Scro Fleet; and the elves would be none the wiser.
A few moments later the Champion of Clan Bloodfist heard the answering rolls from the rest of his small fleet. This was just as the next band of asteroids rolled into view. “Dive!” he cried out, and the crew hauled in the lower foresails so the Mantis would tip forward and down. When another large floating rock was revealed in behind it, he called, “Brace for impact!” and he felt the gravity of the large stone body pull his wrists against the restraints as it tried to yank him from his chair when they passed under it. Some of the grapple crew were lifted right off of their feet for just a split second and they came down hard when they cleared the planetoid. Ghost fell on his rump.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” he muttered through the headache that was beginning to set in. The ships following wheeled around the asteroid as well. There was a rotating turret mounted on it and the operators were firing the heavy ballista into the blockade. That gave the Champion hope; obviously the defensive line here had not been completely broken yet. They might escape after all.
The weapons platform cleared, they passed over the craggy peaks of Potemkiz. The Champion felt a pang of sympathy for the Special Forces trained volunteers there, and vowed to come back for them at some point if he could. But there was no time for a planetary landing if they had any hope of escaping the blockade.
A full-sized elven Man-o-War hove into view. The Matey howled, “Fire at will!” Both of their ballistae and the two recently-refitted forward-facing medium catapults fired and the Mantis groaned and jerked under the recoil. The Matey moaned as the impact slammed him figuratively in his shoulder-blades, upper back and breastbone. All missiles found purchase and the enemy ship, primarily hit in the larboard wing, spiralled out of control and crashed into the rocky surface of Potemkiz, where it toppled end-over-end until it shook itself apart.
By whatever means necessary, he thought to himself grimly; and hoped there was no one below that he knew.
“Larboard ten, pitch fifteen; now!” he yelled, just in time to avoid a stray meteor that was about the size of a respectable boulder. The flotilla passed over the obstacle with no mishaps; and then they found the blockade. Just as he suspected, the elves were spread thinly and staggered at awkward points. “Reload!” he commanded.
“Already in process, sir!” their Artillery Commander replied.
The Champion grinned. “I love you, Thorgir.”
“Nor drakaar,” the big orc responded dryly. Despite the building strain in his nerve tissue, the Matey was surprised into a laugh.
“All right!” he cried as the blockading elves caught sight of them and their flags started to run up the masts, “Signal the fleet to form into the Minefield with us at the center. Direct the Warmaster and the Starkiller to form port and starboard. Send the Greytusk port of the Warmaster and the Bloodrender starboard of the Starkiller. Have everyone else fall in to the best of their ability. Tell them to stay in Minefield until we hit the net. Got that?”
“Gul, karr!” the Yeoman called back. A moment later the complex tattoos to give these orders rang out over the ship deck. The Champion smiled. He was hands-down the fastest jammer; the Warmaster and the Starkiller were the next quickest, followed by the other two ships he’d named. The ships began to move into a staggered line, the ones on the bottom spinning so that their keels faced off against the keels of the ones on the top.
“Now,” he said as the blockade began to move to intercept them, “when I give the word, the fleet is to form into the Rock-biter Arrow. Have the Warmaster and the Starkiller hold the top and the bottom; have the Greytusk and the Bloodrender hold the port and the starboard. We’ll take point. Copy that?”
“Gul, karr!” the Yeoman acknowledged and the drums continued to thunder out the commands as directed.
“Good one, sir,” Sailmaster Katha called down to him. “I think you’ll find a weak spot twelve points off the starboard bow.”
The Champion struggled to stretch out his awareness. The ache in his nerves had begun to itch in that maddening kind of way that he associated with a major injury healing and it was distracting. But he saw the hole in the blockade net that Katha was talking about. The closest vessel to the already large field of stars was one of those corvettes, which he suspected had been taken from the shipyard at Greela before they were finished growing and hastily helmed and armed to meet the threat of the scro fleet. It seemed to him that their crews were also woefully inexperienced. I feel sorry for you lads, he thought with genuine regret. “Good eye, Katha!” he said. “Let the fleet know we’ll be veering starboard for that opening when we form up!” The Yeoman acknowledged his orders.
The Matey was beginning to see why victims of lifejammers would rather die than continue to pilot the helm. With each passing second, the pain in his nerves worsened. The steady, maddening itch was progressing into electric shocks, and he was becoming aware of a slow, draining weakness that felt as though he were bleeding out from a major artery somewhere. Sweat was starting to bead at his brow. He prayed he had the strength to do this.
The ships of the blockade were moving to intercept in the tactical pattern that spelljammers called the Court Dance or “Stitches.” Because they could afford to expend superior numbers, two elven ships made for each orcish vessel; which opened up an even bigger hole in their defenses. They thought they were going to pick off some scattered survivors. The Champion growled low in his throat. Not today. “Have the fleet pick their targets,” he commanded. “We’ll take the leader. Fire on my signal and prepare to ram.”
“S . . .” started the Weapons Master of the grapple crew; but his question died at the expression in his commander’s eyes.
“I did not say, ‘Prepare to board,’” the Champion pointed out.
The Master swallowed. “Gul, karr,” he acknowledged. Turning back to his crew, he ordered, “Pull the claws up into the ready position.” The heavy gears and pistons began to grind as the mechanisms were cranked and levered into place. On the outside of the Mantis, the claw-like grappling rams were raised into the position that gave the ship its name. The Matey felt as though his arms were also raised and ready, poised to strike.
“Matey, the first of the elf ships are in range!” announced someone topsides. “Should we . . . ?”
“Hold your fire,” spat the Champion. “All ships hold your fire.”
The drums continued to roll out instructions. Now precise timing would be required and the Matey hoped his navigator’s training was up to the task. He remembered an old shipmate who’d been a gifted navigator and found himself wishing she were here. Though of course, he mused with a smile, this would be impossible. He calculated the distance from the farthest edge of the farthest rocks of Borka. The elves would be waiting for them at the edge of its strange collective atmosphere. If his math was precise, and if his timing and awareness were perfect, they should have just enough time to get out the command by drum signal before there was no shared atmosphere to carry the sound between ships anymore.
The first of the elven ships began firing their long-range weapons. Accelerator shot whipped past them closely enough that the Matey heard it whistle; but he didn’t command evasion because he knew it would miss. “Good, spend that ammo,” he whispered with a smile. A drop of sweat dripped into his eye, but he was so deeply in the spelljammer’s trance now that he didn’t even notice.
Did he smell a change in the air? Was it clearer, like a mountain peak? And was that a shimmer of bluish light he saw before him?
“Punch for the break!” he roared. “Execute attack pattern! Fire at will! Full tactical; nose up! Brace for impact!”
The drums thundered out. The Sword of Courage leaped forward and the Matey moaned with relief as the resistance in his nerves released. The other ships began to fall into position as though they had rehearsed it, and their forward weapons fired into the Man-o-War that was suddenly right in front of them. Their bow tilted upwards and the skate blades mounted on their keel followed. The force of their impact was sufficient to slice both of the butterfly ship’s wings right off. With a horrific crash the forward deck bent in along the center seam and one of the gears from the grapple rams bounced free and almost took out the Matey’s head like a flying sawblade. The corresponding pain winded the First Mate like a broken sternum. “Claws are down, sir!” the Weapon Master announced in the chaos. The Champion only knew what he had said by reading his lips.
“Make . . . for the Grinder,” the Champion panted when the noise had ceased. His ears were ringing, and he repeated the order to be certain it was heard. “As fast as we can. All ships . . . lock on to us. Set course . . . for the Grinder.”
There were fewer drums now, since they had cleared Borka’s atmosphere and the only ones who could hear them were their own crew. Once again the Champion slowed his pace and waited for the rest of the fleet to catch up. He couldn’t suppress a gasp as the lifejammer fought him with a pain that tore at his nerves as though they were being pulled apart.
But then they pulled away from the elven blockade, the four lead ships right behind him – damaged, but alive – and he felt the odd doubling that indicated that they were about to enter spelljamming speeds. “Brace for spelljamming!” he cried out; and with that, they made enough distance from other gravity planes – ships, planets or otherwise – that they were able to accelerate to the incredible velocity of arcane space travel, leaving Borka and the Elven Imperial fleet far behind them.
There was a moment of stunned, disbelieving silence; and then the entire crew burst into raucous cheers and applause, embracing each other and coming over to embrace the Champion in his prison on the helm. Even Thorgir, Rathgar and Katha came down to laugh and clap him on the shoulder. Rathgar, the youngest among them, was sniffling and trying not to show it. “Well done, sir,” he beamed. “You saved us all.”
“The Captain?” he asked in response. Immediately joy turned back into tension. The Champion’s heart sank. But Katha put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, lad,” he said. “Cap’n’s lost a lot of blood, but he’s a tough one. He lived through the battle; I think he’s gonna make it.”
The Champion closed his eyes and some of the tension drained from his body, like the life force being drained by the helm. “Thank the gods,” he breathed. If his blood brother had died . . . ! “Damage report, then,” he demanded, once he had collected himself.
“Catapult’s gone,” Thorgir declared. “So’s the grapples.”
“Rigging’s damaged,” announced Katha.
“Our crest blade is scrap metal,” Rathgar put in. “And the primary helm’s gone, as you know. The bridge is destroyed.”
“But all the other weapons are still good,” Thorgir added.
“And the landing gear’s probably a little scratched up, but intact,” Katha piped up. He grinned. “Landing might be a little rough, but it shouldn’t be a problem for you, my lord.”
It was actually better than he’d hoped. “Casualties?” he demanded.
Thorgir looked grim. “You know about the Cap’n, sir. Sarga’s dead. So’s the Second Mate. We’ve got about three quarters crew.”
He nodded slowly, taking this all in. Then his eyes snapped to the idle grapple crew. “You lot. Go help the Carpenter and the Metallurgist with repairs. Warriors, help with the wounded. Off you go.” With sharp orcish chest-pounding salutes the remaining crewmen cleared the deck, leaving him alone with the Sailmaster, the Artillery Commander and the Boatswain. Ghost gave him a long look. “Nor lakaar, sir,” he said before he headed topsides.
“Thorgir,” he grunted, “you’re my acting Second.”
“Gul, karr,” he agreed with a nod.
“How many made it out with us?” he wanted to know.
His mouth narrowed into a line around his tusks. “Fourteen Manti, sir.”
The Champion hung his head. So much loss! What would happen to the war effort now, he wondered?
“When are you standing down the helm, sir?” Rathgar wanted to know.
The Champion set his chin in a determined expression. “I’m not,” he explained. “Not until we get to the Grinder or until I can go no longer.”
The three scro gaped openly at him. “But sir!” Thorgir exclaimed. “It’s two weeks to the Grinder!”
He nodded. “And until we get there, you need me at the helm. I think I’m the fastest we’ve got and I’ve got training you all don’t. I learned it as a merc,” he replied in response to their questioning looks. It was a lie but it satisfied them.
“You won’t survive that,” Rathgar breathed. “No one would survive that.”
“I’ll go as far as I can,” he told them.
These words were met with silence. But then Thorgir cleared his throat. “I don’t have the authority to argue,” he began, “but as acting Second Mate, can I ask you to reconsider, sir?”
“If not me, then who?” snapped the Champion abruptly.
There was no reply. Rathgar looked away. Yes, they understood the situation. Anyone who took the lifejammer helm was at risk, and his life force was already draining.
“Now leave me to it,” he directed. “The crew needs a commanding officer on deck. Get up there, Thorgir. Rathgar, I’ll thank you to come down in a couple of hours to assist me with the personals. I understand that job would normally fall to the Warpriests, but we need them all for healing the wounded.”
Rathgar swallowed hard. “Gul, karr,” he nodded.
“Nor lakaar indeed, sir,” Thorgir grumbled, clearing his throat. They saluted and reluctantly, left him alone on the bent and broken deck.
– from Brothers in Arms (Toy Soldier Saga book 2).
Diane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author. Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012). Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power was published by Red Wheel / Weiser on Sept. 1. Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.