blue, the ocean snapped its whitened caps thoughtfully to itself and paid no attention to the mites that crawled upon it. Ignoring them was a habit of thousands of years. While above-
"Haul in the topgallants, you slankin' vermin! Faster! Faster or the Lieutenant'll have yer fuckin' guts fer garters, an' that don't make a biscuit what the Cap'n do if he sees this shit-!"
The frigate was small, compared to the monsters this water had seen. This water had played beneath the great leviathans; it had laughed its way through the dissolution of the indisposed giants both famous and unknown. This one, though, still spun and danced atop the swells while reaching out to catch the wind.
"Still gaining, sir. Estimating seven klicks. She's fast, damned fast, but we'll get her before nightfall." The first officer saluted.
"Thank you, Mister Fowler. Tell the Master I want another three knots or I'll know the reason why. That foremast shows no sign of strain."
"Aye aye, sir." The other turned away, shouting as he ran into the orderly crowd of men dashing about the deck while the Captain held a hand magnifier up to his right eye. In its monocular ring, a white-painted vessel wavered in the middle distance with its stern turned towards him and a wake creaming out from under its stern that indicated it was making speed. He could make out men bustling about on her deck, two or three at the stern lookin back. He felt his teeth bare themselves in a grin. A stern chase. And she's not looking very handy, while I have the gage.
"Fall off a point you 'orrible slackwit barstid, Jenkins, or I'll-" the shouts were background, comforting, routine. The frigate HMS Sword Breaker was on the hunt. Captain Phineas St. James, Commander RN, glanced at his pocketwatch, consulted the darkening horizon, and grinned again. His first officer returned to the bow where he stood watch.
"What do you think they'll do, sir?" Lt. Fowler stood quietly by him. The captain extended the monocular and Jenkins took it, examined the target.
"Why d'you think they run, Will?"
"Sir? Because we're the RN, sir."
St. James snorted. "Possibly, boy, but this is the Somali coast. These buggers have been taking ships far larger than us for a long time out here. The whole of the US Navy couldn't make 'em keep their heads down, no - and that crock up there's a sight bigger'n we are and an anvil as well."
"We're too far from the coast to make any anchorage before nightfall," mused the First. Seeing his brain ticking over, the Captain grunted and reclaimed the magnifier. The other continued. "You suspect a rendezvous, sir?"
"I bloody well do. The weather chaps say all's going to be just fine for another day or more in these parts, so they can't be hoping to lose us in muck; no landmasses ahead. No, I estimate they'll try to give us a surprise sometime just around true dusk when it gets really blurry out there. Tell the lads to stand to defense quarters in ten minutes."
Another few minutes passed; another hundred meters of gap fell to Sword Breaker's rushing keel. Underneath her blade-sharp bow, combers rose to either side as she rushed on, her figurehead brandishing a serrated knife threateningly at the horizon.
St. James watched his quarry. Then- "MASTER JONATHAN! CLOSE US UP IF YOU PLEASE! ELEVATE AND ARM! FALL OFF THREE POINTS AND RETRACT THE GALLANTS NOW!"
"Aye sir! You heard the man, boys, close up now, pull in the gallants-" St. James kept his monocular focused on the other ship, now only three or four kilometers away, which had suddenly swelled in his flickering greenish vision as it slewed to the side. The ungraceful lines of a medium patrol craft were revealed, with a few crew-served swivel guns bolted to the rails but no other armament - ah, there it was. Bollixed on between the forecastle and midships deckhouse, with a limited arc of fire; hence the sudden turn to clear the broadside. He raised his voice again.
"ACTIVE ACTIVE ACTIVE-" and several things happened at once. In his right eye he saw intolerable brightness for a moment and then a general greenish glare as the monocular stepped down to save his vision; with his opening left eye he saw a white and orange flower erupt from the other vessel. The missile jumped off the rails and appeared to slow to a halt; dangerous illusion, he knew, caused by it arcing over to fly directly at them.
"DOWN, BOYS-" came a voice from behind him, and he whipped the monocular away from his face and closed his eyes, turning his head. There was a soundless flash of such enormity he could almost hear it as a thunderclap, burning through his eyelids with force enough that the ship surely must be afire, but when he opened them-
-when he opened them to the sound of snarling thunder, there was a saffron firework in midair between them and their quarry, sparks fading hissing and tumbling down into the darkening waters. A cheer went up from the decks, to be cut off savagely by snarled orders. St. James heard the creaking of reinforced wood as the ship heeled slightly, regaining her tack, and the speed slowly came back up.
"Well timed, sir." Lt. Fowler stood behind him, looking composed if a bit pale. St. James nodded gruffly.
"Good man. No sweating before the lads."
"Not at all sir. I'll just piss my pants facing you, thanks very much."
The Captain snorted again with laughter and turned. The quarry was trying to wallow back onto course, but it wasn't moving quickly enough to regain its heading. They were closing to within a kilometer. "Prepare to go active, Will."
"We're not boarding, sir?"
"Not this one. She's a little fish, for an anvil, and I want her associate - not her. We haven't the time. Damned pirates."
"Aye aye." The Lieutenant turned away; shouted orders. A red flare rose from midships, and a voice began to bellow on a loudhailer in Somali. If his orders were being followed, the signal was being relayed as well, telling the other ship to abandon now as the vessel was about to be engaged.
There was a few moments pause, and then St. James saw the forms of men come boiling over the side of the battered trawler - for trawler it was, he saw now. They took to the sea, some tossing rafts overboard, and he shook his head grimly. The Sword Breaker altered course to port several points to pass by the other vessel; by the time they were well past, the sea immediately around it was clear.
"Mister Fowler! You may fire when ready!"
"Aye sir! Deck battery, COMMENCE FIRE!"
There was a monstrous crack and a hiss, as a rod of energy leapt from a square plate emitter halfway up the mainmast. The other ship's hull exploded outward in a ball of superheated steel vapor and oxidized aluminum dust, drowning out the cheers of the crew. The bow and stern sections, now untroubled by any connection, rolled in opposite directions and sank from sight.
"Very good, Mister Fowler. You may tell the Master and the tracking party I want a medium sweep. There's a rat around here somewhere."
* * *
There was, of course. Fowler hadn't yet seen the captain mistaken. The rat, however, was moving fairly quickly, and turned out (when intercepted early the next morning) to be a nastily familiar sight.
"Sir, that's a Krivak."
"Yes; yes, I should think so."
"Sir, her arms-"
"Lad, even if her arms are in order - which I doubt, you never saw the neglect the damned Sovs could design into a ship much less heap on her themselves - then she is crewed by rank amateurs. We will close, and if necessary, board and take her."
"Aye sir!" Fowler was slightly flushed and staring at the horizon, spine stiff in embarrassment. St. James relented slightly.
"Look, Mister Fowler, what are the odds she's had decent resupply enough to keep her arms in order? That's a Krivak III, you can tell by the helo hangar on the back. If they've got a working helo, they're just going to lose it; and to put that on they got rid of the main SSM system."
"Four guns, sir, autoloaders..."
"That's true. But how much ammunition? I'm betting that ship made its way here from the Indian Fleet when it all went smash, and even if it came with full magazines, 76mm naval shells aren't standard kit for any of the ground johnnies they have running around here. They'd have to have resupply."
"Then, sir, what do you propose?"
"Well, young Fowler, what would you do?"
The Lieutenant looked at his Captain. "Sir, I would maneuver to determine their armaments; if they offer no long-range gunnery, I should attempt to close and disable their deck weapons systems with beam fire."
"If successful, sir, I would propose to close on her from astern and board her."
"Very good, lad. Go to it."
The First mate, looking startled, neverthless turned and ripped out a series of orders. Men saluted, answered back, and began running about the deck, reefing in sail and closing hatches. The Sword Breaker heeled into a turn towards the Krivak which was insolently loafing some fifteen klicks off, visible from the cupola.
"They have to see us."
"Don't be so sure. You're assuming that the radar on that tub is working, and that they're keeping watch, and..."
"I'd rather assume that than the other, sir."
At five kilometers, the Krivak's stacks suddenly emitted a puff of smoke, visible clearly. The Lieutenant swore. "Look at them, the bastards. Turbine fuel. They could be cooking with that, or making electricity, or using it for plastics production or pharmaceuticals, but no - they're pushing that damn anvil through the water."
"They haven't all got our advantages, Mister Fowler."
"No sir. But they do have a few oil wells somewhere."
"Either that, or some old hijacked tankers that aren't licking dry yet."
"I suppose. Here we go, sir."
The First Mate turned. "Hoist the colors higher! Let's have a tune, boys! ARM FOR BOARDING! CLOSE UP THE GUN CREWS!"
Strains of bagpipe music began to skirl across the deck. Some cheering arose. There was the clatter of ironmongery and the constant thrumming of feet above them on the spars; the spray blew across the bowsprit, dusting them both.
"God save the King, sir. Sun and sea."
"God save the King, Mister Fowler."
At that moment, an enormous waterspout appeared next to the Krivak. It staggered visibly, and heeled into a vicious starboard turn. The two officers looked at each other. "We didn't-" began the Lieutenant.
"Sir! Tracking reports new target at zero-three-three, distance fourteen klicks! Target reads cork, sir, repeat target is a cork, colors unknown, we're getting no response!"
There was another waterspout, this time almost directly in the Krivak's path. The Russian-built frigate shuddered and reversed turn. A faint pop-pop-pop-pop reached their ears. Fowler reacted first. "MASTER JONATHAN! CLEAR FOR AIR DEFENSE! CLEAR FOR AIR DEFENSE! ENGAGE ALL OUTBOUND!"
"Aye aye sir!"
Sun and sea.
There came a series of sequential sizzleCRACKs from above and behind them, smaller than the previous night. Energy absorbed from the acres of solar active sails during daylight was squeezed into too small a place and thrust upon hydrogen extracted from the sea. The resultant fusion was net positive, barely, but most importantly the plasma passed through the emitter lenses in microsecond fury. Needles of glare lanced out from the ulmaser head, fanning upward one-two-three-four-five. With each stab, a tiny point of light bloomed in the air above and past the Krivak, 76mm shells caught by the ravening beams and detonated; the last one blew just past the fore starboard turret's barrel. There was no more fire; the Krivak attempted to reverse turn again. A red flare rose in the distance, generally at thirty-three degrees from the bow.
Another two waterspouts rose, bracketing the Krivak, and then a dirty orange flare blew out from her sidewall. Another engulfed her stern. She slid to a stop, burning; the Sword Breaker closed on her as the Captain and First Mate focused their magnifiers on the sloop approaching from the other side of the target, two guns run out to each side of its' bow.
"Sir," said Fowler hesitantly, "Sir, that flag-"
"Sirs, what ship is that?"
St. James gestured to Fowler, who turned to face the now-attentive deck and folded his hands behind him. "Men, it appears to be a man of war of the United States Navy."
There was a moment of disbelieving silence, and then a roar rose, lifting the spars and sails with its sound. Fowler turned back to St. James' side. "Sir, do you really think it's the Americans?"
"Certainly looks like them, lad."
"I've seen the Maryland coast, sir. Nothing. Nothing at all."
"I've seen a great deal of their coast, and there's nothing that would suggest this, no. But you know, son, a right bastard once said that the Americans would always do the right thing - once they'd tried everything else."
The two tall ships danced prettily into rendezvous, ignoring the sinking metal hulk. Wood gleamed under brightly polished brasswork; the ulmaser heads of the Royal Navy vessel were reflected in the four 5"/54 caliber guns on the gun deck of the other ship, whose stern bore the inscription U.S.S. Enterprise.
"Good Gods. Those cheeky bastards."
"They're putting a boat out, sir."
So they were. The boat rowed across, and by the time it reached the Sword Breaker's side a party was formed up at the ladder. Lt. Fowler saluted as the two men in a sharp khaki uniform saluted him and then the ship's colors. St. James nodded approvingly as the visitors approached. Fowler made the introductions.
"Captain St. James, this is Captain Alderson of the Enterprise and his Second officer, Lieutenant Brown."
They all shook hands. Alderson grinned. "Damn glad to see you, sir."
"And us, you, Captain. It...has been a while."
"We've been a bit busy, sir. We're sorry."
"Don't be, Captain. May I ask-"
"We lost the coastal cities, Captain. But America has never been just the coasts; nor has she ever been just the cities. Infrastructure - well, it's not in great shape, but we're moving things again under Federal seal. The Interstates are back up in the interior."
"And your ship?"
"There's a long tradition around the name, Captain St. James, and coasts infested by pirates."
"Of course. We're delighted to see you out here once again, Captain. May I ask if you would sail in company with us for a time? There's so much to do, still; but the task has somehow become easier on my mind."
"We'd be delighted, sir. We have word that there's at least two more burners in the vicinity."
"Ah, sorry. Petro-engined vessels, sir. Ex-Indian and China Sea nation navy vessels, the both of them; one of them looks to be a Chinese destroyer, I believe. Their arms are in relatively good order, for the region."
Fowler looked shocked. St. James merely nodded. "Then we shall have to sharpen our swords, Captain Alderson. I seem to be fresh out of turbines myself."
"As are we, sir. But I'm not a cowboy, you see. I'm a policeman."
St. James looked slightly puzzled. "Captain?"
The other nodded at his aide, who raised a small radio to his lips and murmured into it. The American captain returned his gaze to St. James. "It is traditional in my country for the cowboys, especially the good guys, to mount up and ride into the heart of bandit country, trusting in their purity of heart and their speed with a gun to save them."
"I've seen the movies, captain."
"Sir! Sir, there's something...tracking says...SHIT-"
With a sound quite like that of God deciding to pull his bathtub drain, a large shape slid upwards out of the water between the two sailing ships. It was longer than either of them, lethal, and black. St. James looked at it in frank amazement and, he was ashamed to note, a bit of envy. "That can't be-"
"Gentlemen, the U.S.S. Boston. She's in fine shape for a lady her age, and I thought this would be right up her alley."
"What was that you said, captain, about a policeman?"
"Oh yes. You see, while a cowboy will bring his sixgun-" the American pointed at the weapons protruding from the sloop across the water - "and his rifle," he waved at the ulmaser emitters above them, "the policeman won't go anywhere without a hideaway." And with that, he raised his arm and waved vigorously at the submarine's bridge. A moment later, a siren sounded back, a hungry, keening note.
Some time later, the two sailing ships billowed their panels of spun silicate fibers into the air and moved off with killers' grace, trailed behind by an assassin gone old and faithful. They moved south, prows questing, and hard men quivered to see them come.