Dreadnought Approaching

“Captain! Martian dreadnought approaching! Camera four!”
Captain Davis pulled into his chair and fastened the tethers that would hold him there if the ship had to make any sudden maneuvers. “Faction identification?”
“No beacon sir. Still waiting on a report from Optics, but no visible markings.”
“Crap.” Davis switched his console to the number four camera and a silvery dot appeared on his screen against the emptiness of space. “How long until it gets within range?”
“Six minutes.”
“And the Portsmouth? How far out is it?”
“Eight minutes.”
Davis swore. He had allowed their escort to go too far from them. They’d be sure to regret not having the cruiser and its guns if the dreadnaught came within firing range. “Get ready to hail them. All frequencies.” He turned to his left and selected a prerecorded message in eleven martian dialects, all demanding to know the dreadnaught’s intentions.
Davis resolved not to wait for the radio waves to go across the space between them and back. “Put the ship on alert, and call back the Portsmouth. Are the spitfires fueled?”
“Almost. Forty-two are reported ready, twenty-two still in progress. Autocannons are all loaded.”
Davis nodded to himself. Had the dreadnought appeared earlier during their test flights they would have been defenseless. “Launch all of our fighters.”
The alert aircraft took off immediately, becoming blips on the ship’s radar screen. Davis was relieved to see his untested crew working without hiccups as they readied the other spitfires for launch.
Meanwhile, the minutes ticked by with no response from the dreadnought. Davis hoped that theirs was a chance encounter, but he knew the odds of that. The space around them was completely devoid of anything of value. That was why they had picked it. It was a place to test Earth’s new carrier away from prying eyes.
“Two minutes.”
Still no response from the dreadnought. “And the Portsmouth?”
“Four minutes.”
Davis looked back to view of the dreadnought on his console. It was now close enough for him to begin to make out more details of its design. Like most martian ships it resembled a slab of iron with an engine strapped to one end. On its hull was an assortment of weapons clusters, sensor arrays, and docked support craft that looked like off-color pixels on his display.
Davis knew that in a one-on-one fight the carrier would be outgunned by the dreadnought. Their ship was designed to carry and support fighters, not exchange broadsides. He also knew that many of their spitfires would be lost to martian point defense canons. Space combat was still new to humans, while martians had over a century experience. His pilots would be turning theory into practice as they went. It was going to get a lot of them killed.
“One minute.”
Davis glanced at the blips on the radar screen. All of them were waiting for his orders. If he hesitated any longer the dreadnought would be on top of them.
“Engage.”

Train Heist

Billy raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. If he strained his eyes he could just barely make out a thin line of black smoke rising up from the opposite end of the valley. “Best be getting ready!” he yelled as he ducked back into the signal house.

Inside Sawyer and Clay jumped to their feet. Sitting in the corner was the bound signalman, who was resisting Jack’s attempts to force another vial of Oil down his throat. The first dose had worked wonders and had bought them hours of silence from their captive, but the poor bastard had woken up since then, and this time he knew what was coming.

“I still don’t know why we can’t just blow the track,” Clay complained. Even when agitated the man spoke in a laid-back drawl.

Billy was growing irritated with his friend’s unwanted suggestions. “Clay, did I ask you to speak?”

“No, but you need me to,” he answered. “What the hell are you going to do when they realize they’ve been set up and get the train moving again?”

“They won’t get moving because we’ll tie up the engineers first. Besides, what happens if we blow the tracks and someone dies? Do you really want to hang for murder?”

“We’re going to be wanted men after this anyway,” Clay replied, raising his voice.

Billy said nothing, and turned to check on Jack’s progress. By that point the signalman had finally been subdued for the second time. Jack assured him that the man would definitely remain incapacitated for the duration of the job, and was now checking the sealed jars of formaldehyde that he had prepared for their heist.

“I still think we need a name,” Sawyer said quietly.

“Shut it Sawyer!” Billy yelled. “The train is almost here.” He balled up his fist, but held it at his side. His brother’s incessant ideas were starting to annoying him. “I’ve spent weeks planning this heist, and all you-”

“He has a point,” said Jack. “Most gangs give themselves names nowadays. If they don’t some reporter will. It’s the only way keep control of your branding. ”

Billy glared at the disgraced chemist. He didn’t know what the man meant by ‘branding’ but he knew that he had no time for it. “I,” he began slowly. “Am beginning to regret bringing you on for this job.”

Jack shrugged. “Just trying to help.”

“All of you are going to get me killed.” Billy declared, and went out to check on the train’s progress. It was now close enough that he could make out the individual cars behind the engine. In his mind he pictured the mail car at its end, loaded with gold. He had paid good money for the information, and he was expecting a big payoff.

This would be it. No more working for another man’s profit, no more worrying about where his next meal would come from. Soon all four of them would be rich men. He checked and saw that the stop sign was still in place before taking a swig from the flask of whiskey he kept in his back pocket.

Once he had allowed the whiskey time to calm his nerves, he turned and went back into the house. “Everyone on your feet!” he hollered. “Train’s almost here.” Sawyer and Clay jumped to their feet, while Jack’s response was much more subdued. “Guns loaded?” The three nodded an affirmative, while he made sure to check his own pistol as well. “Alright Jack, put on one of the signalman uniforms. I want you to be ready out there with the formaldehyde. The rest of you, keep yourselves hidden in here, or else they might see you and suspect something.”

The three of them nodded, and Jack, having donned the uniform, went to stand wait by the stop sign. Billy swore when he realized that the uniform was much too small for the chemist. Jack’s twin revolvers produced a pair of bulges in the uniform that he hoped would not be noticed. “They’re too far away to see anyway,” he muttered to himself.

“What’s that?” whispered Sawyer.

“Nothing!” Billy snapped. “No more talking!”

The train eased to a stop. Billy had imagined the engineers panicking at the sight of their stop sign, but by all appearances the engineers seemed perfectly in control of the metal beast. They must have seen it from a distance, he thought, and then realized that meant they might very well have seen him too. “They’ll just think I was here to help,” he assured himself.

“What?” asked Sawyer.

“Shut up!” He was getting worried. Not about the plan, everything had worked so far. He was worried about Jack. As the train approached the man had suddenly lost the snarky attitude that they had all gotten used to hearing from him. Jack, Billy decided, was a professional.

Jack had approached the train and was speaking to the engineers. “Now,” he whispered, silently urging Jack to throw his jar. He began to wonder if Jack actually intended to throw the jar, and it he was planning on selling them all out instead, until suddenly Jack sprang into action and lobbed his jar of formaldehyde through the engine’s window.

Billy drew his pistol and ran from the signal house, “Go!”

Clay and Sawyer pulled scarves over their faces and ran out of the signal house after him. They quickly closed the distance between them and the mail car before throwing their own jars of formaldehyde through the windows. Billy watched long enough to make sure that the two had made it inside before taking up position beside the engine with Jack.

Jack nodded to him and drew his pistols. Together, he and Billy jumped aboard the engine and found the engineers coughing and sputtering from the formaldehyde’s noxious fumes. Jack gave them a few kicks for good measure, while Billy tied their hands with a length of rope from his satchel.

Billy kicked them again and told them to stay quiet, before jumping out of the engine with Jack. “Let’s get the passengers subdued.” Jack, still without any sign of his previous attitude, simply nodded again. As they walked along the coal hopper Billy saw Clay stick his head out of the mail coach and give the all clear sign. Billy allowed himself to breath a sigh of relief, so far everything had gone as planned. He expected that by then Sawyer and Clay would be working over the mail guards, trying to convince them that opening the safe was in their best interests.

The two passenger cars presented a different problem. Billy and Jack were only two people, and if there wasn’t a single gun-carrying passenger on-board Billy would eat his hat. He reasoned that a single gunman might be able to keep control over the car so long as he displayed enough bluster. Even that was assuming that no one on board felt a sudden urge to become a hero.

He took the first passenger car while Jack went on to subdue the second. Billy cocked his pistol and held it before him as he went to face the passengers. To his relief most of the seats were empty, and to Billy’s eyes the few passengers that were on board all looked to be clerks and bankers. Not the kind of people who would feel inclined to fight. Billy allowed himself to relax a little, although he was well aware of the fact that less passengers would mean less loot.

“Alright!” he yelled, trying his best to add an edge of menace to his voice. “Unless you want to get shot, you’ll keep any valuables you have held in in front of you, and your mouths shut.” He struggled to open his satchel and keep his gun ready at the same time.

Billy was so nervous that he nearly pulled the trigger when the door at the opposite end of the carriage swung open. Just in time he realized that it was only Jack, who was pushing two women who looked like sisters in front of him.

“Only ones in there,” Jack explained, as he pushed them onto the nearest empty bench.

With Jack’s twin pistols now trained on the assembled passengers, Billy felt comfortable walking among them to collect their booty. “Everything you have goes in this bag!” he yelled repeatedly as walked along the aisle. Most of them complied, dropping handfuls of bank notes, jewelry, and spare change.

He had almost reached Jack when something hard struck the back of his head, and he soon found himself lying on the floor.

“Put the guns down or I put a bullet in your friend’s head,” said someone behind him. From where he was Billy could see Jack standing with both of his pistols trained on a single target. He was standing firm for the moment, but Billy could sense that the man was wavering.

Slowly, Billy tried turning his head to see who was behind him and was instead greeted with a boot that slammed his face into the floor. Teeth broke free from their roots and blood filled his mouth. “Bastard,” he said spitting out the teeth.

“Hardly,” said the voice. “Now, you,” he addressed Jack again. “Put down your guns as I instructed, or I will kill your friend.”

Billy looked towards Jack and their eyes met. Resignation flashed across Jack’s face. He nodded, and slowly he placed his pistols on the floor. The voice spoke again. “Right. Now, pick up the bag, and give all of these good people their money back.”

Jack stepped forward cautiously and grabbed the satchel from Billy’s hand. As he did that the strap caught and twisted Billy’s wrist. Billy swore through the blood, but he refrained from saying anything else lest he invite another kick.

As Jack rose up again, the sound of gunshots and shattered glass filled the carriage. Fresh blood spattered on the floor. Billy shut his eyes, in anticipation of a bullet soon entering his skull. To his surprise that bullet never came. Instead he heard a heavy thud behind him accompanied by a woman’s screams. His assailant had been shot, he realized.

Jack helped Billy to his feet and retrieved both their pistols. Meanwhile Sawyer, followed by Clay rushed into the car. Clay had abandoned his usual lazy drawl and was now screaming at the passengers while brandishing his rifle.

“We should hurry,” Sawyer insisted.

Billy was in no mood to argue. He looked around the car one last time and saw the body of the man who had been holding a gun to his head. A woman, he guessed her to be the man’s wife, was sobbing over the body. He spit a mouthful of blood at them and turned to lead the gang away from the train.

They untied their horses from the posts behind the signal house and rode off towards the mountains. Half a day passed before Billy was satisfied that no one was following them. Jack scouted the forest around them and soon came back to lead them to a small stream. Next to this stream they erected what Billy decided was the saddest looking lean-to he had ever seen.

Sawyer and Clay, eager to take stock of their prize, dumped both the haul from the mail car and the passengers’ effects on the ground beside the campfire. Meanwhile, Billy found a comfortable tree besides the fire where he could nurse his sprained wrist.

Their prize turned out to be considerably smaller than Billy had been led to believe by his informant. Silently he cursed the ‘western gentlemen,’ who bought their wives jewelry made of fake gold and hardly carried more than five crowns on them. His more pressing concern, now that they were a safe distance from the train, was what to do about Jack.

All he had known about Jack when they first met was that he was a disgraced chemist, whose customer had died after an unfortunate mix up of tonics. Billy had welcomed the chance to recruit an educated man for their job, especially when Jack had shared his formaldehyde trick with them, but there was something wrong about the man. Something about Jack made Billy think that he was a bit too comfortable with the pistols hanging from his hips.

Sawyer soon distracted him from his paranoid thinking. “How are we gonna divide this up?” he asked holding up a gold bar.

“We wont,” Billy answered, “not yet.” He looked at Jack, then back to the two of them. “We us the loot to buy provisions first. Then we divide up what’s left.”

Clay was visibly crestfallen upon hearing that his share would be smaller than hoped.

“You mean we’re gonna keep this gang together?” Sawyer asked carefully.

Billy nodded.

“Okay. Well, in that case. We have a name for us.”

Billy raised an eyebrow.

Sawyer turned to Clay. “You tell him.”

A grin split Clay’s face. “The Broken Heads.”

Billy could see Jack smirking behind them. He thought about their suggestion for a moment. “The way I see it,” he said slowly. “Is that there’s got to be something broken in your head if you’re going to go rob a train like we just did. Alright. We’ll be the Broken Heads Gang.”

Imposter Syndrome

A cold wind swept over the surface of the tiny lake, buffeting Erik as he sat down on the gravel shore. He shivered, he had been gone a long time and was no longer used to the weather. Behind him, his new body guards stood ever watchful and seemingly unbothered by the wind. He looked out over the lake, examining the curve of it’s shoreline, and the gentle ripples that travelled along its surface.

As he sat there a singular thought consumed him, the same though that had occupied every waking moment he had had for the past week; he should not be there. No, he decided, it was more than a thought, it was a feeling, an instinct. One that reached deep into his core. He was neither worthy enough, nor suited for the task before him, and yet it was he who had been chosen.

He reached into his pocket and retrieved the crumpled letter that had been delivered to him just days before. When it had arrived, they had found him living in a small fishing hut in greece, the valkyrie that had delivered it was stern, as was typical for her type, but through her facade he had sensed a deep worry. It was then that he had found out that his brother Poul had died two weeks earlier, and he had learned what was to be his own fate.

You, Erik. Who have strayed far from northern shores and wandered for these past eight years, have been chosen by decree, vote, and fate, to rise to the demands of destiny. This is both a great honor, and burden, one that you have been judged capable of bearing. You will return to the land of your fathers with all haste. All travel arrangements have been made. Synnove, whose presence now indicates both the validity and urgency of this message, shall be your guide in whatever path you choose. We, your humble servants, eagerly await your return.

It hadn’t been a choice, not really. Returning home would have been the only way to find out what happened to his brother, and he knew that Synnove would have killed him if he refused. It never helped to have potential rival claimants running around. A flight out of Athens, with a connection through Germany, had brought him to Stockholm. Where yet another plane had waited to fly him to the little valley in which he now sat. All through the journey, Synnove had been a perfectly silent and infuriating travel companion. As she stood behind him now he was just as annoyed by her imposing presence as he had been when she watched him sleep on the plane.

Not that she was the only one watching him. A score of valkyries had dispersed themselves around him, trying their best to look disinterested. Meanwhile, if he looked around the lake and to the compound that sat on it’s northern shore, he could see security details bearing a dozen different family crests. Each house was especially suspicious of the other. He had learned on arrival that his brother had been killed in the most recent of ten assassinations that had taken place over the previous year. Everyone he had asked had heard a different rumor, all about a supposed new and unnamed Loki that was behind the assassinations. A few, although those were in the minority, thought that this might finally herald the arrival of Surtur, and the beginning of Ragnarok. Erik was partial to the idea that some foreign actor was trying to drive a wedge between the houses, but he didn’t go so far as to claim that this was the beginning of Ragnarok.

In such a tense environment each of the houses was accusing the others, and all feared that someone might interfere with the coronation. The Norns had bowed to the intense political pressure and allowed each house to send security details, on the condition that only the valkyries would have direct access to Erik.

Taking another look at the openness of his surroundings, he was surprised that his guards had let him come outside. Without trying he could spot half a dozen places around the lake that would be perfect for a sniper. No doubt Synnove was cross with him. The thought of her seething beneath her expressional face gave him a small amount of satisfaction, but was of little comfort.

Poul’s reasons for choosing him were clear. As his brother, Erik was unlikely to have killed him, and being away for eight years meant that he was distanced enough from the local politics that the houses would accepted him as a relatively neutral party. Thirdly, his travels had been extensive, and for a community that could at times become so consumed by its internal affairs that “worldliness” was correlated with wisdom in their minds. He glanced up at the compound, there was still time to escape. Not that the valkyries would let him get that far. He pushed those thoughts away. It was his duty to go on with it, both as a northman, and in memory of his brother.

A bell tolled in the compound.

“It’s time to go,” announced Synnove. It was the first time he had heard her speak in days. Erik brought himself to his feet. Might as well get it over with.

They followed him to the lake’s northern shore, where a set of covered stone stairs led up to the rest of the compound. The stone stairs were ancient, Erik would never have dreamed of trying to guess just how old they were, and the Norns weren’t inclined to reveal much about themselves. The steps were lines by wooden columns carved into the shapes of trees that supported sculpted roof of wooden leaves. To Erik’s displeasure it didn’t do much to stop the wind.

The stairs winded him. There he was having spent eight years walking across Europe, and still he could be defeated by a set of stairs. “Some All-Father I’ll be, huh?”

“A fine one indeed, sire,” said Synnove beside him.

Erik looked at her, surprised that he couldn’t detect any hint of sarcasm. “Do you think so?”

“Of course,” Synnove replied. “The best leaders are the ones who don’t want to be. It keeps you humble.”

“I hope you’re right…say, which way do we go now?” They had reached the top of the stairs, putting them in the middle of a long, curving hallway that went along the outside of the building.

“This way sire. We’ll take the long route.” Synnove led him down the hallway, which was lined on the outside wall with statues of past Odins and other warriors of note. Along the inside wall was the massive tapestry that the Norns labored on endlessly. Anytime something of note happened in the world the Norns wove its story into their great tapestry. Layers and layers of vibrant fabric were wrapped around the center of the building. Synnove took him to the leading edge of the textile, where a pair of younger norns were working on the tapestry.

His brother’s statue sat regally at the tapestry’s end, and upon closer inspection Erik noticed that they were adding his brother’s death to the weave. A stylized image of Poul was shown clutching a gunshot wound to the chest, and without any information on the shooter, an image of loki was used instead. The Norns had always favored style of fact.

“We don’t have time to wait,” Synnove reminded him. “Here, take these. They’ll help with the pain.” She handed him a pair of white tablets. Erik nodded his thanks and swallowed them quickly. Now that he was so close to the coronation he was filled with an overwhelming desire to get it over with.

The inner wall had a single arched entryway that the tapestry was woven around to accommodate. Inside was the great courtyard that took up most of the compound. In the center grew a massive oak tree, with a gray stone slab placed among its roots. The three eldest of the Norns presided over this slab, flanked by valkyries and various dignitaries. A host of arctic dwarves stood off to Erik’s left, and in the oak’s branches he thought he was able see the flutter of the elvish delegations. No words were spoken as Erik approached, and took his place at the slab across from the Norns.

“Erik Larson,” spoke the the most prominent of the three. “Do you accept the mantle that has been offered to you?”

“I,” Erik paused and looked around him. Most coronations were done with a sense of melancholy, it was a chance to say goodbye to the old ruler and welcome the new. He could see that his coronation would not be like that. On every face he saw sadness, worry, fear. It wasn’t about what he wanted, he realized. It was about what he needed to do. These people needed someone to lead them, who they felt they could trust, they needed him. “I do.”

Her wizened old face smiled sadly, and she nodded. Around the came the below of hunting horns, and a group a valkyries emerged from the arch behind Erik carrying a body obscured by  funeral wrappings.

The lead Norn drew a knife from beneath her robes and stepped around the slab. In unison they began to speak. “As we commend the body of the All-Father to the heavens, we welcome into our midst a new ruler. Erik Larson. Fate and circumstance have chosen you to lead us. Circumstances that once forced you away from our lands have now caused you to return, and fate decrees that it is you who will become our next Odin. Kneel.”

Erik lowered himself to his knees, and the Norn moved closer.

“Having accepted this burden you will now pay the price of wisdom. As have all those who have walked before you,” they declared.

Erik braced himself for what was to come. The lead Norn grasped his head and brought the knife close, and with a well practiced flick of the blade she removed his left eye. Erik recoiled and pressed his hand to the now empty socket. He fought every urge to cry out. He had to remain stoic. He had to prove that he could take the pain.

This was the price that every Odin paid for wisdom. It was felt that a leader could not lead until he knew pain. That before he declare war he must know something of it’s costs. That a leader must be willing to sacrifice for his people.

A pair of valkyries came and took him. Carrying him between them as if he were a sack of flower, they brought him around the slab, behind the Norns, where a small pond sat between the roots. He was dropped in, the strong arms of the valkyries holding him beneath the surface as he struggled for air.

Be patient, he told himself. He knew that this was just another part of the coronation, but what if it wasn’t? For a moment that thought entered his mind that it could have all been a ruse to eliminate the only person with reason to avenge Poul’s death. Where the Norns to blame? They were not ones to take such overt actions. No. He had to trust in the Norns, he had to let this happen.

As his struggling stopped he no longer felt the pressure exerted by the valkyries. A single hand reached down and grasped his, pulling him from the water. He gasped for air as he broke the surface and was pulled to his feet. Before him stood Synnove, his hand firmly grasped in hers. Behind her stood the Norns, watching, as they always did.

“Hail Odin! Father of all!” Cried the Norns. Synnove and the Norns bowed, followed by the host of assembled dignitaries. An attendant hurried up to him and kneeled at his feet, offering a lit torch. Erik accepted the torch and looked to the slab. The oiled and bound body of his brother had been placed upon on the slab, and piled high with oiled logs and cuttings from the tree.

Erik walked towards the slab. Reaching under his collar he pulled forth a medallion which Poul had once give him as a gift. He placed in over his brother’s heart, and lowered the torch to start the pyre.

The World Building Potential of Old Warships

Lately I’ve been interested in the history of warships, and by lately I mean the past year. More specifically, I’ve been interested in the ironclads and pre-dreadnoughts that nations were building in the late 1800s.

Most people reading this probably know about the USS Monitor. During the Civil War, the American government hired John Ericsson to build a ship that would be a match for the South’s new ironclad; the CSS Virginia. The Monitor represented a major advance in ship design, and its construction resulted in forty patentable inventions.1

Photo of the USS Monitor at Sea. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Monitor#/media/File:USS_Monitor_at_sea.jpg)

The Monitor was just one of many designs that were tried during this era, and the sheer variety in designs is what I find so fascinating. It was a time of great technological advancement, and designers were looking to both the past and future when building these ships. This hybridization of new and old ideas can be seen in the inclusion of rams on many pre-dreadnaught warships, which went on to encourage new innovations in damage control onboard ships. 2

The French Cruiser Dupuy de Lome. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/78/Dupuis_de_Lome-Bougault.jpg)

Finally, there were ships like the Mikasa, Japan’s flagship at the battle of Tsushima in 1905, that more closely resembled what think of when we imagine a battleship. For a time she was the most advanced warship in the world, but that title was soon lost with the coming of the new dreadnought battleships.3

If you want to read more about these ships, Wikipedia has a wealth of information on the many ships of this era. For me though, that wasn’t enough. Whenever I start to develop an interest in something I start looking for books on it. I’ve referenced the three books I’ve found on the topic so far, and if you’re interested in reading them I’ve cited them at the bottom of this post.

So what use are these ships to world building? First off, many ships of this era have a unique aesthetic that can help set the tone of your setting. Seemingly anachronistic designs lend themselves well to steampunk settings, or to periods in which your world is undergoing rapid technological advancement.

I have also found that outlining a nation’s warships helps me wrap my mind around where its priorities lie, and how it’s going to interact with its neighbors. The reason for this is that warships are expensive, and their presence is an easy way for countries to show off their military and industrial might. If your country should find itself in possession of a large colonial empire, it’s going to need a large and modern navy to protect all of its territory. On the other hand, a fleet of older warships might help to showcase a country’s lack of resources, or otherwise help to illustrate the outdated thinking of its leaders.

From a story telling perspective warships have a huge potential for adventure. A good ship could take your characters around the world and back. Encounters between old and new warships can show the reader what sort of changers are occurring in your world.

Researching historical designs will help you get an idea of what these ships is capable of. This information can come in handy if your character’s ship runs into trouble. What the ship can and cannot do are going to determine whether your characters will be able to stand and fight, attempt a retreat, or find a way around the obstacle.

What sort of research have you done to build your worlds? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

  1. Warships of the World to 1900 by Lincoln p. Paine p. 108-110
  2. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Battleships: From 1860 to the First World War by Peter Hore p. 38.
  3. Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare by R.G. Grant p.252