An explosion in the clouds

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Try though she might, Captain Niccasha Fletcher couldn’t regret leaving the war behind. She stood on the bridge of her airship, the Aurora, and gazed out through the main viewport as the vessel steamed north. Golden sunlight filtered through the floating glaciers and ice islands, prisming into rainbows that reached far down into the abyss below. Spectrums of light played across Fletcher’s dark skin, and she sighed. It was clean and peaceful, a welcome relief from the acrid smoke and blazing hulks of war. She frowned. The admiralty had sent her away because she had failed in serving her country. Being grateful for the assignment was cowardice.

The deck’s vibration changed beneath Fletcher’s feet as the great airship crossed a swirling current of frigid air. No ship had ever ventured this far north and returned. In such extreme cold, their pipes would burst and their engines would choke with ice. Even on the insulated bridge, Fletcher felt the chill. She patted the railing. The Aurora had spent a month in dry dock while its engines were fitted with new heat conductors to ward off the snow and ice. But this was the ship’s test flight; no one knew for certain if the modifications would hold.

Fletcher turned to her first officer. “Engine report?”

Commander Helena Rake frowned at her captain before bending to listen at the speaking tube. The young executive officer’s uniform was pressed to the standard of parade formation, the brass of her insignia and sword-pommel polished to a mirror that reflected her lean, pale face. Fletcher watched her with apprehension. Rake had only been aboard for two weeks, a trusted officer sent by the admiralty to keep an eye on Fletcher and, if the rumors were true, replace her.

Rake straightened. “Engineering reports that the new modifications are functioning as expected. We’re operating at full capacity, sir.”

Fletcher turned away from the younger woman. With the modifications functioning, they could venture into the true unknown. This vast stretch of air was an obsession for the faithful of both Albion and the enemy, Lareins. It held the Asgardian civilization’s last earthly remnants, but only vague passages in holy books hinted at what those remnants contained. Remote Asgardian outposts had been explored before, but no one had yet ventured into what had been the gods’ home before they ascended to Valhalla.

A message tube slid down from the forward observation post. Fletcher opened the brass case and read the note inside: Island directly ahead. Fletcher and Rake pulled down their viewing scopes and pressed up to the eye pieces. As Fletcher increased magnification, a speck far in the distance grew until it was a titanic mass of rock and ice suspended in the air.

Great spires of steel and concrete rose like thorns on the island’s top side. Deep gouges marred its cliffed edges, evidence that storm winds had torn down some of the towers and sent them toppling into the crushing abyss of air. Even with these portions missing, the abandoned Asgardian skyline dwarfed the mightiest cities of Albion and Lareins – those that had not yet been devastated by the war. Fletcher took a breath. She’d paid the gods no more than lip service for years, but the cyclopean city brought back a lifetime of prayer and devotion. Never before had a home of the gods been discovered in such an intact state. Rake intoned a prayer of thanks to the Allfather.

Fletcher stepped away from her scope. “Bring Dr. Cline up here. He’ll want to-”

“Thank you, captain,” came the deep baritone of Dr. Cline. “But I’ve already been informed.” The broad-shouldered, olive-skinned man stepped from the bridge lift, each footfall punctuated by a clack from the point of his gentleman’s cane. He carried a hard case over one shoulder and stared at the Asgardian island as it approached.

Fletcher made space for Cline at the viewport. He was a representative from the Science Ministry, and the admiralty had made it clear that the Aurora must go wherever he wished. He’d been friendly enough so far, even if he was frustratingly cagey about the specific purpose of their mission. “We should be within boat range soon,” she said. “We can have an expedition on the island within an hour.”

Cline held up a hand for silence. He opened his case and drew out a handheld device covered in switches and dials. He pointed it at the fast-approaching island. The device made a soft click every few seconds. Cline shook his head. “An expedition won’t be necessary,” he said. “Continue due north, best possible speed.”

Fletcher’s eyebrows rose. If they navigated farther into uncharted air, they might encounter an ice storm or freezing winds the Aurora couldn’t withstand. She leaned in and kept her voice low. “Doctor, no expedition has ever made a find like this. What more could the Ministry ask for?”

“It is a magnificent discovery,” Cline said. “But unfortunately, not what we’re looking for.” He tapped his cane hard on the deck. “I have my orders, as do you.”

“He’s right,” Rake said, taking up a position at Cline’s flank. “We have orders.”

Fletcher schooled her expression to hide her grimace. She couldn’t risk a confrontation with Cline and her XO, not when the future of her command was in question. Whatever Cline’s reasons, Fletcher wouldn’t discover them now.

A message tube arrived from the starboard lookout post. Enemy ship spotted to the east. Fletcher froze as a familiar dread rolled over her. She hadn’t expected the Lareins to send a ship so far north. The war had followed her. Ships burned in her memory, superstructures cracking open in the heat and spilling sailors down into the abyss.

Fletcher overcame her paralysis as Rake took the message from her fingers. Rake read it with bright eyes and a toothy smile. “Battlestations!” she bellowed. The bridge exploded with activity, alarms and orders ringing out with equal volume.

Fletcher pressed her eye to the scope. The cigar shape of an airship steamed toward them belching smoke and flying the crossed-sabers flag of the Lareins. Fletcher compared the enemy’s profile to her long memory of engagements. A fast battlecruiser, it would outrun and outgun the Aurora. Since the Larein ship had made it this far north, they must have modifications similar to her own. Fletcher’s best hope was her ship’s superior maneuverability.

Rake pressed her ear to the speaking tube. “All sections report battlestations, sir.”

Fletcher nodded.

Rake straightened and lifted an iron hammer pendant from a chain around her neck. Chatter died away on the bridge. Officers and crew alike turned toward Rake, heads bowed. “Mighty Thor, Lord of Thunder,” Rake intoned, “as you strike down your enemies, we shall strike down ours in your name so that we may earn a place beside you in Valhalla.” She stomped a boot hard on the deck. “To victory!”

Sailors echoed Rake’s call. Fletcher joined in but couldn’t help feeling a twinge of unease. In the days before the war had escalated, prayers before battle had focused on fighting with honor and the courage to protect those who could not protect themselves. Now the emphasis was on killing the enemy and earning a place in the hall of endless battle.

The Larein battle cruiser’s forward guns flashed. The shells went wide, exploding off Aurora’s bow and peppering the armored hull with bits of shrapnel. “Hold fire,” Fletcher said. At this range, they were unlikely to hit anything, and the Aurora’s smaller caliber would barely dent the enemy’s armor. “Adjust course three points west, full speed for the island.” The floating ruin was her only chance to even the odds.

Rake stared hard at Fletcher, though the commander’s discipline was too ingrained to question a superior in combat. Fletcher could guess well enough what her XO was thinking. The course she’d ordered would expose the Aurora’s side to the enemy, and their forward guns would be unable to return fire. It looked like a retreat, and an ill-advised one at that. Fletcher hoped the Larein captain thought the same.

The Aurora’s deck shook as the old boilers worked themselves to full capacity. Enemy fire rained down around them, seeking to breach a viewport or slag an engine. The Aurora shuddered as a shell struck its armor belt, but the ship steamed on. Finally they entered the island’s shadow, and Fletcher lost sight of the enemy ship just as it turned to come around the opposite side.

Fletcher nodded to herself – it was the logical move. The enemy would slow, wait for the Aurora’s bow to emerge from the island’s shadow, and then unleash a full broadside from close range. She had only one chance to avoid total destruction. She looked to Rake. “Order all hands to brace themselves.” As her first officer relayed the command, Fletcher issued a second order: “Reverse thrust on starboard engines.”

The deck pitched under Fletcher’s feet. She and her sailors lost their footing and kept themselves upright only by handholds and harnesses. The ship’s structure groaned as the starboard propellers switched direction. It was a violent maneuver, something few ships could manage without tearing themselves apart. Hull stress gauges shot into the red, and glass cracked in the viewports. Even so, the compact Aurora came about with its hull intact and steamed back the way it had come.

In seconds, the Aurora left the island’s shadow and beheld the enemy’s stern. The Larein ship was perfectly positioned for the Aurora to emerge from the far side, but completely unprepared for the smaller ship’s reversal. Fletcher nodded to Rake. “Fire.”

The Aurora’s batteries thundered away, tearing great chunks from the enemy’s lightly armored stern. The Larein ship struggled to turn, but it was too late. Its rear guns returned fire, but they couldn’t match the Aurora’s main armament. The enemy’s lift envelope ruptured, and its bow sank, beginning the long plunge into the clouded abyss.

A cheer went up on the Aurora’s bridge, only increasing in volume when Rake held her hammer pendant aloft. The XO looked at Fletcher with wide eyes and an exultant expression. “You did it, sir.”

Fletcher nodded. “Get me a damage report.” She allowed herself a moment of satisfaction. The new crop of officers scored high marks for loyalty and dedication, but she’d wager none of them knew half the tricks she’d learned after decades on an airship bridge.

Out the viewport, white lifeballoons rose like spores from the falling Larein ship. Each balloon had a dozen or more survivors clinging to its webbing as their vessel disappeared into deep air. Fletcher glanced at the outside thermometer; it showed a temperature well below freezing. The enemy sailors wouldn’t last long out there, even if their balloons stayed aloft until another Larein ship arrived.

“Deploy boats for rescue operation,” Fletcher said.

Officers and crew jumped to obey. Fletcher turned away from the viewport only to find Rake blocking her path. The admiration was gone from her face. “I must object, sir,” she said. “The forward batteries and bow armor are damaged. Holding position for a rescue mission will put us at risk of further attack.”

Heat rose in Fletcher’s cheeks. “Your objection is noted. If that’s all?” Caution be damned, she would not be publicly countermanded on her own bridge.

Rake’s voice carried across the bridge. “You’re hurting our chances of victory and helping the enemy.” Several of the bridge crew turned to watch the confrontation. “The same way you helped the enemy at Sky Reach when you refused to fire on their retreating ships.”

The bottom dropped out of Fletcher’s guts. Of course Rake would know about the incident that led to Fletcher’s disgrace. She wanted to shout that those ships had been loaded down with refugees, that firing on them would have been monstrous. Before she could say anything, Dr. Cline stepped up beside Rake. “I’m afraid she’s right, captain. Our mission is urgent. We don’t have time for rescue operations.”

Fletcher took a deep breath to master her wits. They didn’t have time? On an archaeological mission? She couldn’t press him now; sailors were dying in the cold air. She focused on Rake. “Your opinion was not requested. Return to your station, or you will be relieved.” Moments passed as the two women stared each other down. Rake looked away first.

Fletcher turned to Cline. “I assure you, we’ll be under way shortly, doctor. We can burn extra coal to make up the difference.”

After a quiet moment, Cline nodded.

Fletcher marched away from him and her XO, the threat to her command momentarily subdued. She gave orders to coordinate the rescue mission and pushed Cline’s comments to the back of her mind.

The Aurora’s boats, little cans of lift gas with a cabin and pedal-driven propellers, flitted out to the struggling survivors. Fletcher approved supply requisitions to feed the prisoners and quarter reassignments to make room. It would be tight, but they would manage. The crew was in high spirits, having just defeated a larger enemy ship with relatively little damage. This was the kind of fight Fletcher had grown up with: ships battling for the honor of their nation, not the industrialized slaughter of the current war.

A message tube slid down. The note inside was hastily scribbled in a shaking hand: Enemy ship to starboard and above.

Fletcher dashed to her viewing scope. The lookout was right, a second Larein battle cruiser descended upon them, its stern just slipping out of a cloud bank. She’d let herself get distracted with the rescue operation and hadn’t considered the clouds’ potential to hide an enemy. Defeating the first enemy had been difficult enough. With its damaged armor and weapons, the Aurora didn’t stand a chance. Silence reigned as her sailors beheld the doom bearing down upon them.

“Bring the boats in,” Fletcher said. “Turn us five points northwest, and prepare for top speed.” Her voice broke the crew out of their paralysis, and they jumped to obey. Fletcher felt the satisfied gaze of her first officer. “Do you have something to say, Commander Rake?”

Rake stayed silent for a moment. “No, sir, I believe the situation speaks for itself.”

A crewman signaled that the last boat was back aboard. Fletcher gave the order, and the Aurora surged to full steam beneath her, leaping forward on a course nearly perpendicular to the enemy. Fletcher gazed ahead at a dark mass of storm clouds billowing on the horizon. Her course would bring them within close range of the enemy’s guns, but it was the only direction in which they would find any cover.

The enemy’s forward guns flashed. The Aurora rocked under near misses, but she steamed on.  Fletcher gripped the railing with white knuckles. They were almost through.

Rake looked into her scope. “The enemy is turning broadside to us,” she said. She turned to the speaking tube. “All hands, brace yourselves!”

Fletcher watched the enemy ship as it turned, giving up the chase in order to bring all of its weapons to bear. Five double turrets swung toward the Aurora, enough firepower to split the smaller ship down its axis. The deadly batteries flashed in unison. A heavy weight struck Fletcher, knocking her down. Her head bounced hard off the deck, and her vision swam. An explosion rocked the bridge. Howling wind carried shards of glass through the compartment.

Fletcher’s vision slowly cleared, and frigid air blew across her skin. The weight lifted off her, and she realized that Rake had tackled her. The bridge’s starboard and port bulkheads bore matching holes from where a shell must have passed through without exploding. If Fletcher had still been standing, the shrapnel would have shredded her. She nodded her thanks.

Rake ignored the gesture and stood. “We’ve reached the storm clouds.” She touched the iron hammer pendant around her neck. “As the Allfather climbed Yggdrasil’s branches to escape the wolves, we live to face the enemy another day.”

Fletcher got to her feet. Dark clouds swirled outside the viewport. She turned her scope back and forth, but the Larein ship was nowhere to be seen. A powerful gust screamed through the breached hull. Fletcher pulled her uniform closer against the cold. “Get a repair crew up here,” she said. “And I want to know the rest of the ship’s status.”

Medics and engineers emerged from the bridge lift, put the wounded onto stretchers and patched the hull to halt the inflow of freezing air. In the flurry of activity, Dr. Cline stood unmoving before one of the bridge’s few intact viewports. The man had shown no surprise at either enemy ship. He’d also suggested the mission was vital – too vital to risk. But if that was the case, why choose someone with a record like hers? Fletcher needed answers.

She stepped toward Dr. Cline. She kept her voice cool, her suspicion bubbling beneath the surface. “One enemy ship this far north might have been a coincidence,” she said. “But two isn’t. Why choose a disgraced captain when you were clearly expecting to meet the enemy?”

Cline’s lip quirked up. “You do yourself a disservice, captain. Whatever the admiralty says, few officers could have gotten us this far alive. I’d say my request for you was justified.”

Fletcher blinked, taken aback. “If you requested me,” she said at last, “then trust me. What are we after that’s valuable enough for the Lareins to send two battle cruisers after us?”

Cline tapped his cane on the deck. “I’m not at liberty to say.” He leaned in, his own voice low. “But know that I detest this war and what it’s done to our country as much as you do. I want it to end.” He turned back to the viewport. “We’ve lost too much time already, captain. Set your course due north.”

Fletcher had no choice; her ship was at Cline’s disposal. She would carry out his orders, even as she mulled his cryptic words over. How could flying past holy ruins in the frigid north bring the war any closer to an end?

With repairs still underway, Fletcher kept Aurora steaming north. Cline took readings with his device at regular intervals, ordering slight course changes based on the volume of clicks it produced. Later that day, they encountered screaming headwinds, slowing the ship’s progress to a crawl. Soon the sun sank below the horizon, leaving the Aurora to frigid darkness. The morning light showed more storm clouds flowing in around the ship as it steamed further into uncharted air. Fletcher observed the sky warily as the clouds slowly thickened, limiting visibility. The enemy could have been just off Aurora’s bow, and she wouldn’t have known it.

Two days after encountering the Larein ships, Fletcher was awoken early and called to the bridge; the lookouts had spotted something strange in the clouds. Rake was already on the bridge when the lift doors opened. Fletcher stepped off the lift and straightened her sword where it banged against her thigh. “What are we looking at, commander?”

“Unclear,” Rake said. “We thought it was dense cloud at first, but as we got closer…” She motioned to the scope.

Fletcher pressed up to the eyepiece and adjusted the magnification. A smudge of browns and grays came into sharp focus, a cloud of floating rocks swirling around each other in midair. Amidst the stone, Fletcher saw flashes of metal and glass, the remnants of towering buildings, some still clinging to boulders the size of her ship. The cloud had been an island once, larger than any island Fletcher had ever seen, until something shattered it.

“By the gods above,” she whispered. Even before their ascension, the Asgardians were the most powerful warriors in existence. What could have destroyed one of their islands? “Dr.Cline will want to see this.”

Indeed, the doctor broke into a smile when he beheld the shattered island up close. In a flash, he had his device out, and it clicked louder than ever before. “Yes,” he muttered. “We’re close. Bring us three points northeast.”

Fletcher breathed a sigh of relief. She wanted nothing to do with a force that could annihilate an Asgardian city. The faster her ship was away from this place, the better. They would find an intact city great enough to impress Cline, and the quest would end. The Aurora steamed northeast on its new course, and soon another object emerged from the clouds. Instead of a city, it was a second swirling cloud of rubble. Cline ordered the ship to hold course, and before the day was out, they passed a third shattered island, then a fourth. The further they traveled, the louder Cline’s device clicked.

Fletcher watched each debris cloud with mounting unease. Beyond the frozen barrier was supposed to lie the Asgardian civilization, preserved in ice since their ascension to Valhalla. But there was almost nothing left of it. When she looked at Rake, the younger woman held tight to her iron hammer pendant. This did not feel like the empty home of gods. It felt like a graveyard.

At last the cloud cover broke, and the Aurora emerged into clear air. A chill went through the ship as the temperature dropped further, but the engine modifications held. Dr. Cline pointed to a growing speck on the horizon with his cane. “There. That is our destination.”

Fletcher focused her scope. The speck became an island, the first intact one she had seen in days. Compared to the first island they’d encountered past the Arctic Barrier, it seemed small and insignificant. It’s surface was pockmarked with blast craters and the iced-over remnants of buildings. Clouds of shattered stone surrounded it, siblings that had long been blown to bits. Fletcher pulled back from the scope, but before she could question Cline, an alarm sounded from the ship’s stern lookout.

She swung her scope around and beheld the Larein battle cruiser emerging from the clouds behind them. The enemy was nearly on top of them, at such close range every shot would find its mark. The Aurora had no cover to exploit, no way to leverage its superior maneuverability. The enemy had them dead to rights. The blood drained from Fletcher’s face. She exchanged a look with Rake. “Commander,” Fletcher said, “Bring us broadside to the enemy, and we shall give them the fight of their lives.”

Rake relayed the orders to a stunned crew. She raised her iron pendant. “Thor in all his glory sees our valor today. Should we pass in battle, the glorious flames of war shall carry us to Valhalla.”

The Aurora turned broadside to the enemy with all guns run out. The Larein ship matched their maneuver, bringing its full weight of metal to bear. A brief moment of silence passed between the ships as gunners sighted on their targets.

The opposing broadsides flashed in unison, and explosions thundered through both ships. The deck lurched to port, but Fletcher kept her feet. A fiery tear opened in one of the enemy’s turrets, belching greasy black smoke. Fletcher bared her teeth. The Aurora would not fall easily into the abyss. The vibration of the deck below her feet changed, the smooth hum degrading into a choking stutter. The engines had been hit. Why would they target her engines when the Aurora was already too close to run away?

Fletcher blinked. The Larein ship was shrinking in her scope, pulling away from the engagement even as the Aurora’s gunners reloaded for a second salvo. A cheer went up from the bridge crew as the enemy disengaged, though it was tinged with relief and confusion.

“I don’t understand,” Rake said. “They had every advantage. Why retreat from victory?”

Fletcher traced the Larein ship’s course in her head. The enemy was flying at full steam toward Dr. Cline’s island. “They wanted to make sure they got to that island before we did,” she said. “If they entered a full engagement, they might become too damaged to make it back home with their prize. Whatever’s there, it’s too important to risk.”

Rake stared at her captain in silence.

Fletcher put a hand on her XO’s shoulder. “Damage report?”

Rake recovered herself. “Several hits to the starboard propellers and turbines. We’ll do well to make half speed.”

Dr. Cline broke in, his tone anxious. “That will not do, captain. You must find a way to catch the enemy before it’s too late.”

Blood returned to Fletcher’s cheeks in an angry flush. She was finished taking orders on her own bridge. “I will do no such thing, Dr. Cline.”

The doctor’s face reddened as he spluttered, “You must, captain. Your orders.”

“My orders be damned,” Fletcher said. “I will not take this ship against a superior enemy for the sake of your secrets.” Rake stood beside her captain, face set in agreement. Gratitude flickered in Fletcher’s chest. Even Rake’s zeal wouldn’t induce her to throw the Aurora away without cause.

Cline took a step back from the two officers. “I see,” he said. “Very well, I shall reveal our true goal. This is no mere archaeological mission. We have been sent to recover Lord Thor’s hammer.”

Silence reigned on the bridge. “You can’t be serious,” Fletcher said at last.

Cline lifted his arms. “Ancient texts discovered only in the last year say that the weapon was left behind, in the heart of their empire, when the Asgardians ascended to Valhalla.” He pointed out the viewport, toward the shrinking Larein ship and the island beyond it. “That is the resting place of our most sacred artifact. We cannot let the enemy possess it. Hail Thor!”

Rake returned the call, and cries of “Hail Thor!” echoed around the bridge. Fletcher saw rapture on the face of every officer. She stepped back and made no attempt to countermand Rake’s orders for a pursuit course. She’d face a mutiny if she did.

Cline had resumed his place by the viewport, calm and collected as if he hadn’t just extorted her crew into a religious frenzy. Fletcher glared at his back but said nothing. Her only hope now was to retrieve the artifact, if it really existed, and get out of here before the enemy shot them out of the sky.

The Aurora’s engineers worked feverishly to repair the damage even as the ship was under full steam. Reading their report, Fletcher made a note to put them all in for commendations. Even so, the Aurora’s engines were only at three-quarters strength as the ship approached its target.

Through their scopes, Fletcher and Rake watched the Larein ship send boats back and forth to the island. The enemy held its position as the Aurora approached. Dr. Cline chuckled. “They haven’t found it yet, or else they’d be gone.” He tapped his cane on the deck. “We’ll have to send over our own expedition, of course.”

Fletcher eyed him. “And how will you find it where they haven’t?”

Cline patted the case containing his sensor. “They don’t have this device. It is attuned to a special energy the hammer produces. We shall locate it easily once we are on the island.” He stepped away from the viewport. “I shall require a marine detachment. Commander Rake, will you accompany me and deal with any military difficulties we encounter?”

Rake beamed. “I would be honored.”

“All of this to recover a single artifact?” Fletcher asked. She considered her next words carefully, aware of Rake’s devout eyes on her. “I didn’t realize the Science Ministry was so committed to the faith.”

Clined gave a tired smile. “When we have the hammer, Larein will recognize that Albion is favored by the gods. They will accept the terms we offer, and the war will be over.” He bowed to Rake. “I must prepare. I shall meet you in the boat bay, commander.” He stepped onto the bridge lift and descended into the ship.

Fletcher put a hand on Rake’s shoulder as the younger woman took a carbine from the bridge armory. “Commander, wait.” Fletcher took a deep breath. “You can’t trust Cline. He’ll sacrifice this ship and anyone onboard without a thought.”

Rake shrugged Fletcher’s hand away. “If sacrifices are necessary for victory, so be it.” She buckled the carbine over her shoulder. “That should be obvious to you, if you hope to one day reach Valhalla.”

Frustration entered Fletcher’s tone. “He told me he disliked the war to get me on his side. Now he speaks of honoring Thor and Valhalla to make you do as he says. Do you honestly think this mission is for the gods’ glory and not his?”

Rake hesitated. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” she said at last. “I will follow orders, meet the enemy in combat, and reach Valhalla if it is my time.” She turned and stepped onto the lift.

Fletcher waited in silence on the bridge as the island and the Larein ship grew larger in the viewport. A gentle rock of the deck told her the boats were away.

“Keep the island between us and the Larein ship as long as you can,” Fletcher said to the helm officer. Through her scope, she watched the enemy, the top of its dorsal batteries just visible over the lip of the island.

The battle cruiser held its position as minutes ticked by, becoming hours. The enemy made no move to engage the Aurora, and Fletcher understood her opponent’s logic. They’d been searching the island for half a day before the Aurora arrived. There was little chance of the Albions finding the hammer first and therefore no reason to risk a battle. Fletcher wondered what the Larein captain would have done had they known about Cline’s device.

The fourth hour of waiting was nearly upon her when flashes of muzzle fire twinkled near her soldiers’ landing site. Tiny silhouettes rushed toward the Aurora’s boats, though it was impossible to distinguish Albion from Larein at this distance. Moments later, a message from the lookouts confirmed what Fletcher saw with her own eyes: the boats were pushing off and beating a fast retreat from the island.

Fletcher had barely read the note when the Larein ship belched smoke and lurched forward. She adjusted her scope and found the landing boats blown off their course by frigid wind. The enemy battle cruiser bore down on them.

“Full speed,” Fletcher ordered. “Put us between our boats and the enemy. All batteries concentrate fire on enemy engines.” She had to slow the Larein ship down enough to collect her boats and escape. Nothing else mattered.

The Aurora leapt through the air under full steam, groaning from the patchwork repairs. The ship eclipsed its boats just as the enemy opened fire. Shells smashed into the Aurora’s armor belt, and one of its turrets bloomed in a fiery explosion. The Aurora returned fire, sending a barrage of metal into the enemy’s propellers.

Fletcher held firm to the bridge rail as her gunners did their work. The Aurora shuddered beneath her with each hit, and she could do nothing to stop the damage. She could only hope the ship’s rugged frame held long enough to retrieve the boats. A shell struck the bow, and the last of the Aurora’s heavy guns erupted into slag. The ship was defenseless. They couldn’t last much longer.

“Boats are aboard,” an officer shouted from the speaking tube.

Fletcher let go of the rail. “Get us out of here!”

The Aurora listed hard into its turn, systems straining as they gave their final effort. The enemy gave a parting barrage, shells tearing through weakened armor and into the Aurora’s hull, but the smaller ship steamed on. The Aurora leveled out, crawling away from the Larien battle cruiser on one remaining engine.

Fletcher watched the enemy fall away to stern. Its few remaining propellers spun weakly, unable to make headway against the powerful winds. It listed on its side like a wounded beast, immobile but still dangerous. Fletcher took her eyes away from the scope. “I’m going below,” she said. “Let’s see what we’ve been fighting for.”

Below decks, the Aurora was a mass of twisted metal and wounded crew. Frigid air leaked in through countless breaches; it was only by luck that the lift envelopes remained intact.

Fletcher nearly collided with the ship’s surgeon at the docking-bay hatch. Blood stained his smock, and his expression was set in a hard line. “Four marines didn’t make it,” he said. “Commander Rake was hit, and she’s beyond my power to save. Other patients need me in the infirmary.”

Fletcher stood aside for the surgeon to pass.

The docking bay was nearly empty by the time Fletcher climbed through the hatch. Cline fawned over a dozen steel crates stacked beside one of the landing boats. His device clicked even louder than before, but Fletcher’s gaze was drawn to Rake. She was seated against one wall, carbine by her side, a deep red stain over her abdomen. Rake’s eyes stared without focus.

Fletcher’s gut tightened as she beheld the awful wound. She knelt over her first officer. “Commander? Commander Rake, can you hear me?”

Rake’s eyelids fluttered, and her head lolled to one side. Her voice slurred. “We did it, captain. We…” She trailed off.

Fletcher squeezed her dying XO’s shoulder. She stood and rounded on Cline. “Doctor, what happened over there?”

Cline barely glanced at her. He ran a hand over one of the steel crates with a light touch, like he was worried it might crumble. “Finally,” he said with a whisper. “After searching for so long, I’ve finally found them.” The device clicked on in his hand.

Fletcher blinked. What was Cline talking about? What were these crates? She looked closer. Each crate was emblazoned with the mark of a double-headed hammer, the exact likeness of Rake’s pendant. Fletcher didn’t understand. These metal boxes were certainly no divine hammer, and yet Cline’s device clicked away. Fletcher grabbed a pry bar off the wall. She would see for herself.

Cline gave a startled cry. “No, stop!”

Fletcher jammed the bar into the nearest crate and pushed with all her might. The ancient hinges gave way, and the lid fell to the deck with a clang. Inside was a long cylinder, at least as wide around as a person, with a rounded nose on one end and blocky fins on the other. This too was emblazoned with the hammer.

“Incompetent buffoon,” Cline muttered. “You could have damaged it.” With the crate open, his device clicked even louder. It called to mind images of the destroyed islands.

Fletcher’s gaze was drawn to the fins, the same kind that were present on bombs her ship had dropped over enemy cities. “There never was a Hammer,” she said. “Only these hammers.” She stared at Cline. “These are weapons, aren’t they?” She remembered the shattered islands with growing horror. “Weapons the Asgardians used on each other until they were gone.”

Cline waved his hands, as if swatting her words from the air. “No, no, that’s preposterous.” He hesitated, face flushed. “Yes, these are the mighty weapons of the gods. No doubt most of them were detonated when the Asgardians ascended.” He paused as if searching for words. “While these few were hidden away for us to find.”

Fletcher shook her head. The doctor was spinning a tale for her, and a transparent one at that. Before she could respond, a shrieking crack reverberated through the ship, and the Aurora lurched under Fletcher’s feet.

The voice of her third officer sounded from the docking-bay speaking tube. “Captain, captain are you there?”

Fletcher turned away from Cline. “Yes, lieutenant, report.”

“The repairs on our last engine gave out,” the lieutenant said. “We’re adrift.” Panicked, unintelligible shouts echoed down the speaking tube. The lieutenant’s voice returned. “Captain, the wind’s shifted. The Larein ship is drifting toward us.”

“Understood,” Fletcher said. “I’ll be up shortly.” The enemy battle cruiser still had enough firepower to destroy them twice over, and it would do so the moment it came within range. She looked out the viewport; the enemy ship grew larger. There wasn’t much time. Fletcher looked away to see a broad grin on Cline’s face.

“This is perfect,” he said. “We can test one of the hammers and protect our secrets at the same time. No one in Larein can know we have them until we’re ready to start production.”

Revulsion crept up Fletcher’s throat. Cline was so eager to use a weapon that had already wiped out one civilization. She tried to focus on the problem in front of her. “It won’t work. Even if our batteries were operational, no gun in the fleet is powerful enough to fire something that heavy.”

Cline’s lip curled. “As if I would damage such a delicate machine by firing it from a cannon. The best delivery method would be to drop it from above, but since that isn’t an option here…” His gaze fell on the nearby landing boat. “I’ll set it for a timed detonation, and send it toward the enemy in one of these. By the time they realize what’s happening, it’ll be too late.”

It would be too late because Cline’s monstrosity would wipe them from existence. Fletcher shook her head.

Cline stared at her in consternation. “This is your duty. These weapons will let us destroy the enemy in one stroke. No more wasteful conflict, just a clean victory.” His sneer turned to a teeth-baring smile. “You made this possible, captain. I convinced the admiralty that a disgraced captain would mean less attention for the mission, but I knew we’d need someone of your caliber to succeed, and I was right. When we return, you’ll be the hero who ended the war.” He gestured at the enemy ship. “Either that, or we all die here.”

Outside the viewport, the Larein ship drifted ever closer. In minutes, it would be close enough to destroy the Aurora. Her gaze shifted to the hammers. They were the only weapon she had left, the only way she could save the people under her command, the people who depended on her. Cline was right – the Admiralty would welcome her back, pin a medal on her chest, and shower her with honors. She’d return to the war a hero, just in time to watch Cline’s hammers rain down on soldier and civilian alike. It would be a slaughter beyond all others. She shook her head. “No.”

A calm descended on Fletcher. “I won’t be part of this. Yes, these weapons will let us destroy every Larein island from far above. We will win a victory of ashes, until someone else discovers how to make them and uses them on us. Then we will be like the Asgardians.” It wasn’t enough to stop Cline from deploying the hammers; Fletcher had to make sure they never returned to Albion. She turned and strode to the controls that would open the bay doors. “I’m dropping those crates where they belong.”

“You won’t,” Cline said.

Fletcher heard rasping metal and turned. Cline had drawn a slender sword from his cane. He lunged. She threw herself aside, but the tip of Cline’s blade scored a long cut along her ribs. Fletcher pulled her own sword free in time to deflect a killing thrust, but Cline struck again, his blade plunging into Fletcher’s thigh.

Fletcher groaned and gave ground. Her arm felt like iron weights tied it down, heavier with each parry. Cline swatted her feeble counterattacks away. She fell to one knee, and he stood over her with sword raised in triumph. “Albion will prevail,” he said. “When the hammers fall, they will sing my name.”

A shot echoed through the bay. Red seeped through the front of Cline’s tunic. He stared at the wound in surprise for a moment and then toppled to the deck. Behind him, Rake let her carbine fall.

Fletcher struggled to her feet and took unsteady steps until she was close enough to kneel by her dying first officer. “Commander, I don’t… Why?”

Rake chuckled, and a trickle of blood ran from her mouth. “Why did I shoot him and not you?” She took a gasping breath. “You were right. He doesn’t care about the gods. In his vision, war is nothing but a few flashes viewed from above. If we never meet the enemy in battle, we cannot prove ourselves worthy of Valhalla. I couldn’t allow that.” She gave a retching cough, and more blood bubbled between her lips. Her look turned pleading. “Did I make the right choice? Will they welcome me to the Iron Hall?”

Fletcher held her XO’s hand. “If anyone deserves to reach Valhalla, it’s you.” She gave herself another moment as the last remnants of life left Rake’s body. Then she straightened and limped to the docking bay controls.

The Larein ship was close enough now for Fletcher to distinguish the enemy’s remaining turrets, all trained on her ship. With shaking hands, she pulled the levers to open the bay doors, spilling the metal crates down into the freezing abyss.

The enemy guns swung forward, sighting on the Aurora. Fletcher faced her enemy; one broadside and it would all be over. Frigid wind lashed her face through the open bay doors. One of the larger ship’s propellers coughed to life, arresting its drifting progress. The Larein battle cruiser turned away by inches, receding from the Aurora at a snail’s pace. Its guns swung back to their resting position.

The bridge lieutenant’s voice sounded over the speaking tube. “Captain, if you’re still there, the enemy ship…”

“I know. I see it,” Fletcher said. If the Larein ship was content for both of them to walk away without the hammers, so was she. The admiralty would demand an answer. Fletcher could lie and possibly keep her command, say losing the hammers was an accident or that Cline had done it himself in desperate treachery, but she would not. Let them do their worst – she was done with this war. She spoke into the tube: “Turn us toward home.”


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