A Monster In The Sky_Part 5

by Steven Mohan, Jr.

Wind tore at Kozlov’s clothes, buffeted his body, assaulted his face until tears streamed from his eyes and were carried away. The polkovnik wrapped an arm around the center framing of his shattered windows, holding himself up against the wind, against the treacherously blood-slicked deck, against the nausea roiling his stomach and the ice-pick agony throbbing in his ears.

“Fire,” Kozlov roared.

Baratinsky shook with the recoil of his eight-inchers. Water exploded on the far side of the Japanese destroyer.

“Bracketed,” Kozlov called out. The last shot had been on the destroyer’s near side. His gunners had found their range.

Knowing he was doomed, the destroyer turned hard to starboard at thirty knots, kicking up a rooster-tail of white spray. The little ship’s principal weapons were his twin 18-inch torpedo tubes, but he made a brave noise with his three-incher. A gray line of shells rose from the sea and shot into the sky only a score of yards from where Kozlov stood.

“Steady, helm,” he barked. “I don’t want this ship to move an inch.”

The junior sergeant on the helm said something, but Kozlov couldn’t distinguish the words. He had gone from hearing nothing to hearing muffled sounds. It was like overhearing a conversation through a closed door. It wasn’t much—but he would take what he could get.

He looked at his bridge crew. They looked back at him, faces naked with fear, wanting desperately for him to somehow make it all okay.

“Don’t worry about that little three-incher, boys,” he said. “He’s trying to run, which means he can’t bring his gun all the way around and he’s firing on the move. His problem’s much harder than ours. So we’re going to wait right here until our gunners find his range.”

His boys all nodded. Kozlov imagined he heard a few “yessirs.”

And then suddenly they were all pointing, their mouths open in silent yells, jumping up and down and pounding each other on the back.

Kozlov turned in time to see a great gout of flame stab high into the sky.

Baratinsky‘s eight-inch shells had punched through the destroyer’s armor. The destroyer’s stern was down by at least ten feet and listing heavily to port. But that wasn’t what caught Kozlov’s attention.

His fourth stack was damaged, exploded like a joke cigar. Heavy black smoke poured from the mangled stack. In a flash of insight, Kozlov understood what had happened. One of the shells must have dropped straight down the stack, destroying the last of the four Yarrow boilers.

Unobstructed by armor.

And Baratinsky had been so high that the destroyer couldn’t reach up to hit him. Why didn’t I see it before? thought Kozlov. In warfare it’s always been advantageous to hold the high ground—and what ground is higher than the sky?

He stepped through the hole of the missing window onto the port bridge wing to take a new look at the battle raging all around him. Skyships lumbered through the heavens, trying to avoid the more powerful Japanese gunfire. The battle had devolved into twenty, thirty skirmishes, and the Russians seemed to be losing them all.

But it didn’t have to be that way.

Suddenly his replacement deck officer was by his side, pulling him back inside the pilot house. The boy was pointing frantically out the windows. Kozlov saw the damaged Japanese destroyer limping away, trailing ugly black smoke. He thought he heard the boy say: “pursue.”

Kozlov shook his head. “Nyet, nyet.” And this time, miracle of miracles, his abused ears converted that little bit of pressure into sound. “Signal the fleet.”

#

Overhead, one of the leviathan gunboats rocked with blows from the guns of one of Togo’s destroyers. The skyship careened drunkenly across the sky.

Togo raised his binoculars and watched the wounded bird struggle to stay aloft. The Russian commander had divided his fleet, trading a fight against one battleship for a fight against an entire battle fleet. It was a desperate move—one that could only end in the Russians’ destruction.

Togo shifted his view left and saw the protected cruiser Kasagi, harried by a pair of Russian gunships, turn sharply to port, unmasking her batteries. Kasagi elevated her guns and fired up. One of the gunships wandered too close to the stream of shells fired from Kasagi‘s lethal eight-inch guns. The Berkut shuddered and juked across the sky, rapidly losing altitude.

But the second gunship managed to stay out of Kasagi‘s line of fire, safely outside the angle to which her guns could elevate. The determined little skyship positioned her guns so her shells fell just beyond her own bow and plunged directly down toward her enemy. The Berkut poured down fire onto the cruiser, accepting the fact that its three- and five-inch fire that couldn’t penetrate the cruiser’s four-inch armor could handily smash the bridge and kill deck hands.

The gunship and the cruiser were tangled together. Kasagi was like a horse trying to shake off a biting fly. The horse was infinitely more powerful, but the fly was almost impossible to catch.

Worse. The little Berkut had managed to lure Kasagi out of the Japanese fleet’s battle line. Togo’s vessels were being delayed and drawn off. And every second the Baltic Fleet survived brought them a second closer to safety.

Togo pointed at the cruiser and glanced back at Taniguchi. “Instruct Kasagi to return to her station.”

The young officer bobbed his head. “Hai, Togo-sama.”

Togo raised his binoculars, watching the cruiser. The gunship fired a volley and the shells arced harmlessly over Kasagi‘s crow’s-nest. Toys, he thought. Do not bend your will to the makers of toys.

The cruiser suddenly turned right. Togo saw the moment when her captain put on the flank bell, the screws churning the water as Kasagi accelerated to her top speed of 23 knots. She raced back to her position in line, the gunship lobbing shells after her.

“Good,” Togo whispered, “good.”

If they kept moving toward the Russian fleet, they could not be denied.

The Russian Berkut fired another volley.

The Russians could not do Togo’s fleet any real harm. They could only win the day if—

His breath caught in his throat.

A sound like thunder rolled across the water, drowning out the staccato boom of gunfire for several seconds. It was followed by a massive fireball, incandescent orange fire burning to bitter black smoke. Kasagi swerved left and then right. There were men running around on her deck, some of them on fire, some of them leaping into the sea.

The leviathan had been lucky, smashing a shell into the cruiser’s forward magazine and igniting a massive secondary explosion.

Except—it hadn’t been luck. As he examined the scene before him, Togo realized it was a deliberate tactic. The leviathans were hovering almost directly above his ships, out of reach of his big naval guns, lobbing their shells down. Tearing into ship superstructures and stacks, hitting his vessels where their armor was thinnest.

Another peal of thunder rolled across the sea. He turned to see a Japanese torpedo boat pull out of formation, bleeding acrid smoke from her second stack like a gutted man bleeds dark blood from his belly.

Rage took Togo then, rage and fear.

Fortunately, he knew exactly what he had to do.

To Be Continued…

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