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Under a black bag
By Cliff Stornel
By Cliff Stornel
"Bag ho, Portside rising!" came the call from the nest. His cry soon led a choir of deckhands and within seconds everyone knew. Thomas Gray's heart sank at the second call: "She flies under a black bag!"
It had been three days since they had lifted off from New London and only five since he left the academy. His first assignment was a routine patrol. This wasn’t supposed to happen. His hands tightened around the ship’s wheel and his foot kicked the metal door to the wheelhouse shut. Two lengths of iron fell across the door and sealed him in.
A voice echoed from a speaking-trumpet, "Wheelhouse, bring us across their bow and then put us along side with starboard guns on target. Guns, shoot as we across. I intend to board and capture her.”
"Guns, Acknowledged, Sir" came a nervous reply.
Thomas didn’t reply. His eyes were locked on the bag as it climbed up out of the clouds. He was a little surprised it wasn’t black as he thought it was more than just slang for pirates. It was a slow climb for a bag that size, so she had to be heavily laden. Men, no not men, pirates (he corrected himself), scrambled across their bag’s rigging like monkeys. A pair of them had just affixed a patch to the bag then dove off. Their ropes trailed behind them, snapped taunt and swung them to the deck just as it broke through the clouds. The pirates were rigged for combat, gun ports hung open and cannons still smoked.
"Wheelhouse, are you there damn it?" the voice snapped his attention back.
"Wheelhouse, ack, acknowledged, Sir."
"Pull yourself together boy. You’re a navy man now."
Thomas pulled hard on the ship wheel and swung them around as he listened to the captain. Fans on each side of the ship propelled it forward, under the power of the steam turbine deep in the hold. Across the blue gap he could see the pirate’s fans spin up to speed and knew what they had planned. His hand cracked the comm-tube to engine room "I need full steam; they’re trying to Cross our T.” A surge of pride washed over him; he knew the lingo.
"Aye aye" the Chief replied.
Thomas slammed the brass throttle down. The ship surged ahead. The other ship fired a single shot that fell short. Then another and another, until the last round crashed into the stern. Both hands fought to control the wheel and keep the angle. “Brace yourselves, they’ve ranged us,” he called as pulled the wheel hard to the left. The ship swung across the others bow. He'd done it; he cut them off.
Death and destruction spat from the cannons. Their blasts felt like waves of thunder had washed over the ship. A gap in the volley’s smoke framed a man as he fell from what was left of their bow. The chase cannon mounted in their forecastle was now exposed to the sky and teetered on what remained of the deck. Its shot rolled across the deck and poured out through the gap like droplets of water. If it had been crewed, it wasn’t now.
Thomas brought the ship around and pulled back on the throttle as he brought them alongside. Cannons roared from both ships. Wood and decking splintered off in all directions as shrapnel. Those who remained on the deck tossed grapples to lash the ships together. An explosion rocked the bow and screams echoed through the comm-tube. When they died down, a shout came over the roar of flames: “They hit the front powder stores! We’ve got fires everywhere and the command room’s gone.”
“Gone!” his lips moved but no sound came out. He watched in horror as a rail mounted cannonade spat grape across the deck. Its tiny flechettes flashed through the air and ripped through the flesh of his fellows. Pirates leapt across the gap with pistols and blades in hand. “We’re being boarded!” he screamed into the tube.
Few reserves bubbled up from bellow deck to fend them off. He hoped that meant they were busy with the fire rather than dead. They were horribly outnumbered and there was nothing he could do about it. The fans had stopped and both ships hung dead in the air. Smoke from the fires that blazed and the powder in the air wafted away on the wind.
The braided cords attached the bag to the ship and were slow to catch fire. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t. He switched the comm-tube to the deck trumpet. “We surrender!” His voice was amplified enough to carry it over the sounds of the fire and combat. “We’ll lose both ships if we don’t work together.” Thomas’s cry was carried across the deck by the trumpet. As if perhaps to punctuate his urgency, flames shot up a guide rope. A split second later it snapped and the bow of the ship lurched starboard. Only those closest to the rails survived.
Across the deck, pirates helped whoever was closest over the rail, while others took axes to the ropes that attached the ships. Thomas tossed back the iron bars and swung open the door. Someone threw him a rope and he used it to steady himself as he crossed the lopsided deck. Flames that raged on the bow had started to spread.
In front of him men with boarding pikes pushed the ships apart and at the rail he was forced to jump. Thomas’s fingers wrapped tightly around the rope, but still he slid. Friction tore through the gloves and ate at his flesh. His cry was lost in the explosion as he swung under the other ship. There he dangled, under a black bag, and watched helplessly as the remains of his ship fell to the earth.