Frej Wasastjerna


     There was a tremendous bang. Ying Li-hao lost consciousness.


     When he came to, it was almost dark around him. For a moment he was confused, then he remembered where he was -- in the Y turret of the battleship Imperial Tiger. He was still sitting in the turret commander's chair, with his head leaning against the headrest.

     The red light normally illuminating the turret, to avoid jeopardizing his night vision, was missing. What light there was, was the color of daylight, and it came through a hole in the right sidewall of the turret. A shell must have penetrated there.

     What he could see in the dim light was appalling. Pieces of human bodies, covered with blood, lay everywhere. The equipment in the turret wasn't in much better condition. Loading rams, elevating cylinders and other items were twisted out of shape, blown out of position and riddled with holes. The red liquid on the deck must have been largely hydraulic fluid, colored by an admixture of blood.

     Was the battle still going on? He couldn't hear any firing. In fact, he couldn't hear anything. A battleship at sea is never completely quiet, but he couldn't even hear the ever-present susurrus of blowers.

     He must have gone deaf. He hoped it was only temporary.

     Otherwise he seemed to be unhurt. Maybe some piece of equipment between him and the exploding shell had saved him.

     Then he felt the ship vibrate. Either their own guns had just fired -- A and B turrets might still be intact, at least he hoped so, and then there were the secondary turrets -- or the Imperial Tiger had been hit again.

     Maybe a look through the periscope in the turret roof would tell him what was going on.

     He pulled down the eyepiece of the periscope and locked it into position, then peered through it while swiveling the 'scope back and forth.

     The battle was still going on. Shell splashes sprouted suddenly and subsided almost as suddenly all around the ship. In the distance, flashes showed where those shells probably came from. Even through the haze Li-hao could recognize the latticework masts of Cristoforian battleships, while, somewhat nearer, white bow waves showed where enemy destroyers were approaching, intent on mayhem.

     The Cristoforians were still trying to retake or destroy the naval base at Wahoa, the key to the central part of the Great Ocean. In particular, the drydock which the Zhungkauese navy had managed to capture intact would be immensely valuable in a long war, making it possible to return damaged ships to service much sooner than if they had to limp a quarter of the way around the world, all the way back to Zhungkau. Moreover, many damaged ships might simply not make it back home without repairs.

     And to the right, astern of the enemy's warships, was something that made Li-hao rub his eyes in disbelief.

     He increased the magnification of the periscope to maximum. Sure enough, it was a tugboat. From its stern a hawser extended into the water. It was towing something submerged -- but what?

     Li-hao didn't know. But whatever it was, it was likely to be something nasty.

     Well, he had taken a look at the tactical situation. Now it was time to check whether the turret was completely out of action or whether it could still fire.

     He climbed down from his chair to inspect the turret. In a couple of minutes he found that all hydraulic machinery, whether to load the guns, to elevate them or to train the turret sideways, was out of action. Number one gun could still be elevated manually, using the emergency crank, but the other three were stuck at their current elevations. The manual firing circuit of number one gun was also intact, those of the other guns were torn to pieces.

     And number one gun was loaded. It looked as if the turret could still fire one shot. It had to be trained in the right direction, but the manual training crank was intact.

     But before he fired the one shot he could still fire, he had to inform fire control and damage control of the state of the turret.

     He climbed back into his seat and pressed the intercom button to connect him to fire control.

     The indicator light didn't come on.

     Most likely the wires had been cut by a shell splinter, just like one had presumably cut the electricity supply to the turret, since the lights didn't work. But it was also possible that it was merely the indicator light that was faulty, and, being deaf, he couldn't hear whether the intercom was working or not.

     On the off chance that it was working after all, he described the situation in the turret, including his own deafness. Then he pressed the button to damage control. Again the indicator light remained dark, and again he explained the situation.

     Maybe somebody would show up to carry out whatever repairs might be possible or convey orders about what target to aim his single shell at. But most likely not. Most likely he was on his own.

     So he had to select a target himself, unless somebody showed up with orders.

     A battleship's main armament was intended chiefly to fight other battleships. Was it feasible to shoot at one of the Cristoforian battleships? They were far to the left of the direction the turret was currently facing, so it would be very hard work to train the turret in the right direction manually, but he had to try.

     He climbed back down, disengaged the hydraulic training engine and engaged the manual crank. He pushed hard on the crank.

     It didn't budge.

     He pushed still harder. The result was the same.

     He pushed until it felt as if the veins in his head would explode. Then he tried hitting the crank. It didn't move at all.

     Turning a turret weighing eighteen hundred tons by hand is hard work, to say the least, but the crank was connected to the cogwheel turning the turret through a long series of gears, so that one man should be able to make it move, though a dozen turns of the crank would produce only a barely perceptible movement of the turret. But the crank itself refused to budge.

     He could only conclude that the turret was stuck. He could fire only at some target that happened to pass right in front of the turret.

     He went back to his chair and looked through the periscope again. All the real warships were twenty degrees or more to the left, but the tug following them was slightly to the right. Apparently it was moving faster than the Imperial Tiger -- which suggested that the battleship was seriously damaged -- judging by the fact that it was creeping slowly to the left in his field of view.

     Should he fire at the tug? Firing a 376-mm shell at a mere tug was wasteful, especially as an armor-piercing shell like the one loaded into number one gun might go right through an unarmored target without exploding. Taking care of the tug was really a job for the secondary batteries -- but they were probably busy firing at enemy destroyers, if they were still intact.

     Anyway, was that tug an enemy ship? He had taken that for granted, since a Zhungkauese or neutral ship would hardly steam in the wake of a Cristoforian task force in that fashion. Best to make sure, though.

     It wasn't flying any flag. He peered hard at it, trying to make out enough detail to identify it. Not that that would necessarily do any good. The book of ship silhouettes that he had memorized and that now lay somewhere in the turret, possibly shredded by splinters, covered only warships.

     Then it struck him that there was something familiar about the tug's appearance. He had seen it, or an exactly similar vessel, somewhere, but where?

     He strained his memory, trying to remember. Then it came to him -- he had seen a tug just like that in the port of Los Diablos. He had been aboard the light cruiser Celestial Lotus, on a naval visit back in those days when Cristoforia was ruled by emperor Herbert I and Zhungkauese-Cristoforian relations were friendly, before Nehemiah I had usurped the Cristoforian throne and begun his attempt at world conquest.

     So the tug was a legitimate target. Was it worth a shell? Probably; he didn't understand what the Cristoforians were up to, including a tugboat in a naval task force, but whatever it was,it was likely to be something bad.

     In any case it was the only target he had a chance of hitting.

     But he had to get the range right. To do that, he had to use the turret's own rangefinder, since nobody was feeding data from the fire control center to this turret.

     That meant that he had to wait for the tug to creep right in front of the turret, since the rangefinder was fixed to the turret.

     He sat there, waiting impatiently for the tug to appear in the rangefinder's field of view. Only now did he notice that both his ears were aching.

     At last the tug appeared. He carefully turned the control wheel this way, then that, until he was satisfied that the images coincided as accurately as he could make them. Then he read off the range: 11,270 meters.

     On the scale for armor-piercing ammunition, the elevation pointer of Number 1 gun pointed at 18,400 meters. He had to lower it a lot, and began cranking away.

     It took him quite a while. When he was finished, he looked into the rangefinder again.

     The stern of the tug was just creeping out of the field of view.

     All devils take that tug!!! All this work for nothing!

     While he sat there, crying with frustration, the tug began slipping back into the field of view.

     The tug itself was still steaming to the left, but in the rangefinder it appeared to move to the right. The Imperial Tiger had to be turning to port, turning the stuck turret to the left.

     Almost trembling with excitement, Li-hao put his right index finger on the firing button of the Number 1 gun.

     At last the cross-hairs bisected the tug and he pushed the button. The gun boomed, jerking backward from the recoil.

     The seconds elapsing while the shell flew toward its target felt like minutes -- no, more like days.

     Then something happened to the target. The magnification was insufficient for Li-hao to see it clearly, but it looked as if some splinters flew from the tug. Then there was a faint red flash, and the target seemed to jolt a little as if it hiccuped.

     Big as a 376-mm shell is, the explosive charge in an armor-piercing shell isn't all that large, especially not in those used by the Zhungkauese navy. Even a direct hit wouldn't blow up a tugboat. But it looked as if he had hit!

     The bow-wave of the tug was getting smaller, as if it was slowing down.

     Li-hao watched for half a minute or so. Yes, it was very definitely slowing down. And it was lower in the water than it had been!

     After a while the tug sank, still on an almost even keel.


     This was the first time Li-hao was in an airplane. He had always wondered what it sounded like inside the plane, but unfortunately he still didn't know. He was still deaf. So he had to content himself with looking out the window, as the plane droned on – or so he supposed – towards the Lyukai Islands, where it would refuel for the flight to its final destination at Mullehmull, where he would be taken to Naval Hospital Number 6.

     As he watched the endless ocean slipping by underneath, his fingers kept returning to the shiny new additional tiger paws on his collar tabs. He let the letter from admiral Tshang stay in his left breast pocket, he already knew the most interesting part by heart. "... a tug which was towing a giant torpedo. This torpedo, containing 220 tons of toluol trinitrate, was supposed to be launched towards the gates of the main drydock in Wahoa, and would undoubtedly have put the dock out of action for at least half a year, perhaps much longer.

     "Since the resourcefulness of the aforesaid Ying Li-hao averted this disaster, I hereby promote him to Senior Lieutenant and recommend that he be granted the Order of the Rampant Dragon..."