A Monster In The Sky Part 1
by Steven Mohan, Jr.
The bowl of the sky was lavender with the dying night. Polkovnik Mikhail Kozlov’s mighty vessel rocked gently at tether. A life-long mariner, Kozlov handled the ship’s easy roll without thinking of it. His mind was on other things.
On this morning, the morning of eighteen October 1896, the tsar’s proudest ships were moving to break the Japanese stranglehold on Vladivostok. Even now, the sleek, powerful hulls of the Baltic Fleet were slicing through the blue waters of the Korean Strait on their way to punish the Imperial Japanese Navy.
And here was Kozlov, wearing a strange uniform with a strange rank, commander of a skyship, a vessel of so little importance that Admiral Rozhestvensky had declined to order out the skyfleet in support of his grand ships.
Here he was, the polkovnik in command of the RVS Prince Baratinsky, and he could do nothing. He shook his head. Polkovnik. A polkovnik was something like a colonel. Whenever Kozlov heard the title he thought “Captain.”
Kozlov laid a hand on the bulk of Turret Adeen. The forward turret housed two massive eight-inch guns. If only he had a chance to show—
But, no. Kozlov inhaled a deep breath of cold air. The skyships had their uses: they could spot, and they could harass infantry, but the Battle of Port Arthur proved that three- and five-inch guns were no match for the Japanese fleet’s heavy weaponry. Would his unproven eight-inchers really fare any better against the Japanese twelve-inch guns and nine-inch-thick Krupp armor?
He lifted his hand from the turret’s flank, his palm suddenly cold from the steel.
All around his vessel the fleet hung at tether, Baratinsky‘s mate Aleksandr Nevsky and a score of Berkuts, the skyship equivalent of gunboats. They hovered a hundred feet above the earth, moored by great manila hawsers. They looked like balloons, their hulls painted a pale blue.
The Cossacks of the sky, General Ardan Tomav called them.
Kozlov had never seen anything so ridiculous in his whole life. Nor anything so magnificent.
He sighed and looked up, watching dawn break gold and yellow across the eastern sky. If he avoided looking over the railing, he could convince himself he was aboard a ship at sea. He felt the rumble of machinery through the deck, the chill morning wind tearing at his coat, the motion of a vessel battling the will of the world.
There had been a time when he’d thought these things were enough. He’d forsaken a promising naval career to sail the sky. But now he found he missed the cold spray and the taste of salt.
Missed the glory of serving the Rodina, the Motherland, in a way that mattered.
Kozlov’s mouth tasted dry. He stood there for a long moment, just looking at the brightening sky.
An urgent, muffled call emerged from a nearby voice tube, jerking him out of his reverie: “Polkovnik to the bridge.”
Kozlov flew up the steel ladder that led to the port bridge wing, his mind racing. On a naval vessel, this word was passed only in the case of collision, casualty or enemy action. Kozlov couldn’t imagine what emergency demanded his presence on his bridge. He ran, his heart pounding in the cage of his chest.
He burst onto the bridge, throwing open the hatch so that it slammed against the steel bulkhead.
One officer and one noncom stood bridge watch while at tether; a junior sergeant at the wheel and the lieutenant (nyet, poruchik, the rank was poruchik) at the compass stand. The lee helm and the chart table were unmanned.
The compass stand sat all the way forward, just below the great windows that looked out on the world. The poruchik in his long, black leather coat over green trousers and high brown boots (Golubev was his name) was bathed in the dawn’s glow.
And yet his face was ghastly pale, his jaw hung slackly open, his eyes . . . lost. Kozlov had seen such a look only once before. When he’d been a junior lieutenant aboard the battleship Retvizan, one of his young seamen had been washed over the side in heavy seas. Kozlov had seen the very same look of despair and shock on the face of that boy’s mother.
“What is it?” Kozlov shouted.
Golubev handed him a slip of paper, a telegraphic message. Kozlov knew with one look that it came from Admiral Rozhestvensky. The fleet.
PRESENT LOCATION KOREAN ST 8 MILES NORTH-NW TSUSHIMA ISL. JAPANESE HAVE CROSSED MY TEE.
Kozlov’s gut clenched. Crossing the tee was an ancient naval tactic, allowing a fleet to bring all its guns to bear while its opponent was restricted to forward guns only. It was a sure recipe for disaster.
The message listed the fleet’s losses: two battleships, a pair of cruisers and four destroyers. So far. Kozlov wanted to stop reading, wanted the terrible roll call to end. But he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He stood there, frozen.
REQUEST IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE.
The urgency—the panic—in the message was clear as daylight. Kozlov turned to the junior sergeant at the wheel. “All hands to battle stations.”
“All hands to battle stations, yes sir,” snapped the sergeant. He turned and pulled at the bell behind him, filling the bridge with a rapid ringing that carried throughout the ship by a network of tubes.
Kozlov pointed at Golubev. “Make preparations to get underway.”
The young officer blinked. “Sir.” He opened his mouth, closed it again. “Sir, we don’t have orders.”
“YOU DO,” Kozlov roared. And then under his breath: “And soon we will, as well.”
Kozlov wrote out a quick message for his telegraphic operator. He addressed it to General Ardan Tomav, father of the Cossacks of the sky:
MAKING PREPARATIONS TO GET UNDERWAY. WILL TAKE SKYFLEET TO TSUSHIMA ISL TO ASSIST BALTIC FLEET.
He handed the slip of paper to the watch messenger, then told Golubev to signal the fleet his intentions. Then he stepped back, standing in the center of tumult as watchstanders took their stations, shouting clipped reports to the deck officer.
And then silence came again to his bridge. A stray tendril of smoke found its way to him, smelling of the fires of hell. Engineering was bringing up the standby boilers. Somewhere belowdecks, stokers were feeding the fires at Baratinsky‘s heart, sweat gleaming on their bare backs.
The messenger returned with another message.
BALTIC FLEET MUST BE SAVED AT ALL COSTS.
Which was clear enough. Kozlov was to trade the vessels of the skyfleet, all of them, if he had to, in exchange for the Baltic Fleet’s escape. “Yes sir,” he said crisply.
GODSPEED, MISHA. GEN TOMAV SENDS.
The deck officer came to attention as Kozlov looked up. “Lines are singled up, sir. Standing by engines. Deckhands are standing by to take up lines.”
“Very well, Mr. Golubev. Take up lines.”
“Take up lines, yes sir.” The young poruchik repeated the order into a brass voice tube, and the order would be repeated through a megaphone to the men on the ground.
Somewhere below them, young ground conscripts were prying manila lines loose from bollards with marlinespikes. Men on the skyship’s deck were rapidly hauling up the heavy mooring hawsers hand-over-hand.
A voice sounded in the brass tube.
“All lines taken up, sir.”
“Very well, deck officer.” Kozlov turned to the petty officer, nyet, the junior sergeant at lee helm. “Ahead slow.”
A few seconds passed and then Kozlov heard the distant buzz of his propellers coming up to speed, great blades enclosed in aluminum cowlings beating the sky.
Kozlov pointed at the man who was the watch’s lead sergeant. “One long blast.”
The sergeant pulled a lever and the ship’s horn sounded for precisely three seconds, drowning out all other noise and warning the assembled company that Prince Baratinsky was underway.
And then Kozlov’s skyship, his unimportant skyship, began to move through the newly born sky.
To Be Continued…