The Arbiter (Second Edit)

a story
violencecanonstrong language
2013-10-15 11:33:41
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            "Skies clear below captain! Argenstrath is in sight!" cried the lookout perched above the deck of The Arbiter, the private, and only, airship of the barony of Argenstrath. With her vast deck, whirling rotors and enough firepower to drive a gaping hole into any opposition, she was certainly a sight to behold, and to fear. Though she lost her fleet during the revolution and now flew alone, The Arbiter remained a reminder to some of the fall of the monarchy, what was lost in the effort and how the strength of the people would always prevail.
            "Very good Stephens! All hands prepare for landing!" Captain Karset stood upon the rear deck looking out at his busy crew. A hundred good, strong men and women who had been at his side aboard The Arbiter for almost fifteen years. They were a fine crew, the best crew, he knew all their names and faces and yet his thickly bearded face was full of concern as his hands gripped the brass rail he leaned upon.
            "All's good cap'in?" asked the burly, gruff first mate as he approached the captain from behind. The voyage up to this point could not have gone smoother. Their trip to Kuu had been rather uneventful. The package they had been commissioned to retrieve was handed over with ease by a pair of undercover Black Sleeve infiltrators, and the crew had asked no questions. They had done their duty to the letter and they would soon be home with their fare.
            "Aye, all's good Grum, but I don't understand why," Karset questioned. "This sudden trip to Kuu and without escort. Our crew made unaware of the purpose of this trip and neither you nor I have any idea what's in our hold or even who'd be after it. I don't like it Grum. It doesn't feel right. What's the baron gotten us into this time?"
            Grum paused a moment and thought this over. He had already drawn a few conclusions himself. The captain certainly had a point, nothing seemed right.
            "Almost home though, aye cap'in?" acknowledged Grum as he sidled up beside Karset and joined in watching over the men below.
            "This ain't over til we land in Argenstrath," replied Karset.
            The Arbiter sailed peacefully through the clouds with her custom-fitted brass and steel rotors buzzing about, rhythmically sweeping through the air keeping the ship aloft. She was a fine vessel with hand carved trusses and rails. Tall, lofty sails with the emblem of the Barony of Argenstrath sewn upon the flowing, fine silk of her main sail. The flag high above her deck signified her role in the technocracy which she had been built in order to establish. With forty powerful guns, a veteran squad of long-riflemen, a densely reinforced hull and a brisk speed for a ship her size, it was the pride of Argenstrath. The Arbiter was truly the only ship of its kind and the only ship the baron, who inherited the vessel from his father, ever felt comfortable setting foot upon. 
            As the clouds drifted past, Karset stared out into the open sky in contemplation. The crew hardly needed him at this point. Well drilled and oiled, they could take the ship anywhere, anytime without so much as a "weigh anchor" and yet they followed every command to the letter, even the unspoken ones. A few of the crew were already looking to the skies. They could feel it too. Something was wrong.
            "Grum, I..."
            The fires of hell erupted from the main deck as lead shrapnel sent splinters in all directions. Another volley threatened to rupture the starboard hull, spilling men across the decks.
            "Enemy above!" cried Stephens as an unmarked vessel came down through a blanket of concealing clouds. It had been laying in wait for this ambush, just a short distance from the coast. Another round of cannon fire came whistling through the air, crashing down upon the bow. Flame and splinters of wood came rushing up against the men on deck as they scurried into combat positions.
            "Full speed! Ready the starboard cannons and prepare to fire all rounds!" Karset barked out just as Grum pushed aside the helmsman and took hold of the wheel. "Comms! Signal Argenstrath for support!"
            The men moved across the decks above and below in choreographed precision, easily picking up slack for their wounded comrades as the injured were escorted below deck.  They readied the sails for combat, prepared the cannons, lowered the rotors, brought in the rudder and gave the engine all the power possible to get the ship within range of the mainland artillery.
            "Ready! Fire!" Karset cried out. Instantly a blast of fiery retribution burst from The Arbiter in a beastly roar of cannons, sending a wave of lead at the approaching vessel, carving out large chunks of its hull.
            Just then, an explosion erupted from The Arbiter's port side with even more intensity and rage, this time collapsing a large section of the hull and driving the planks down into the crew below, crushing many and injuring even more as a second unmarked vessel came rushing in to join the fray.
            "Captain! Port side vessel approaching at ramming speed!" cried Grum. His massive arms straining the keep the ship's bow from going off-course despite the ailing hull beneath him.
            "Port guns!" Karset demanded, leaping onto the main deck. He could now see through into the main hold from where he stood and called down to his crew. "Riflemen on deck! Small arms at the ready! We are the crew of The Arbiter! Let's show these bastards just what that means!"
            "Hundred meters out captain!" cried Grum from the stern, still straining against the wheel. More than a dozen men quickly taking up position behind the captain with rifles keenly aimed at the awaiting boarding party of the oncoming vessel.
            "Aye Grum! Port cannons at the ready! Hold!" The stalking ship drew nearer as it crept through the clouds. Her engines so loud Grum could hear them over the buckling timber beneath his shifting feet. The oncoming ship was going full burn, destroying its engine for the purpose of drawing enough speed to destroy whatever it crashed into with unforgiving fervor, a technique common among pirates when raiding a ship they stood no chance of defeating head-on. They would board and fight through the crew to find their prize only jump off onto their second vessel before the larger prey could turn and give chase. It was a bold, suicidal move, but Grum knew that Karset wouldn't give them the chance.
            The hull of The Arbiter cried out once more in a fever of lead and fire. From his position, Grum could see the deck of the second vessel erupt in a spray of burning splinters, sending large segments of the hull flying up into the air with the expectant crew falling one by one to the volley of cracking rifles.
            The bow of this second vessel was now steadily tipping downward. Her bearings collapsing through the crumbling hull with an explosion, likely her engine, bursting through her aft stern as she sailed past her target and slipped well beneath The Arbiter.
            A series of grappling hooks sprung up over the rails and the remaining pirates came climbing up against the battered hull of The Arbiter.
            "Small arms present!" cried Karset and the riflemen behind him prepared for a close combat assault. Two of Karset's finest were hit as they gave their lives to cut the ropes, sending many of the enemy buccaneers to the seawaters below, yet a handful of the raiding crew nevertheless managed to get aboard. Karset engaged one with his sword and fired a blast of shot into the belly of another. His riflemen making short work of the rest.
            "Captain!" Grum cried out. "Starboard vessel coming about to return fire!"
            "Aye!" Karset barked back in reply before running his cutlass in a sweep across his opponent's throat. "Those starboard cannons better be damned ready to return fire!" he commanded. His crew already in position with arms at the ready. The surviving riflemen already reloaded and taken up new positions on the opposite side of their weakened vessel.
            "And fire!"
            A wall of flame and smoke ignited the distance between both ships. The enemy vessel took a harsh blast to her bow and ballast while The Arbiter received a similar blow to her stern, a rush of heated splinters tearing through the steadfast men moving tirelessly between the decks of her hull.
            Some of the crew of The Arbiter began to cheer in victory as they witnessed smoke rising from the deck of the enemy ship. Her crumbling bow turning about and heading away, likely crippled beyond continuing any further attack.
            "Captain! We're loosing altitude!" shouted Grum, wrestling tirelessly with the wheel. "Something's wrong! I can't keep her aloft! We're going to hit the water hard!"
            Two of the ship's rotors began to slow and whine, then a third.
            "Keep that damned bow up Grum!" Karset barked and quickly disappeared below deck, choosing to jump through a charred hole instead of taking the stairs.
            Karset pushed his way past the crew. Already the men were laying timber to support the battered beams, tending to the wounded and putting out the flames.
            "Ready the ship for emergency landing!" he called out. "Find the quartermaster! I want this hull ready to take on water!"
            The captain could see the fires belching from the engine room as he drew down upon it. Two engineers were just outside the door, badly burned and unable to stand let alone go back inside.
            "Captain!" called up one of them. "The engine's gone to shit! One of the main turbines must've taken damage somehow! We couldn't stabilize it!"
            Karset turned and took one last glance at his bustling crew and without a word, he  kicked in the engine room door.
            "You can't go in there! Captain!"
            "Through lick of flame he marched inside and that was the last we saw Karset alive."
            Grum could feel the ship falling faster by the second with each of its rotors failing one at a time. The wheel strained and cracked in his hands, but the first mate held strong, his boots practically breaking through the buckling planks underfoot.
            "Come on you bitch!" he growled between his clenched teeth. "Not now! We are getting to Argenstrath or I will personally rape your ass all the way to hell!"
            The rotors suddenly began to whine once more and spun wildly with an almost deafening hum. The bow picked up and the ship righted herself somewhat as her decent quickly began to slow. Her hull groaned and cried out through the strain, her spine screamed with agony, but she was holding together.
            A tidal wave stretching high above the sails crashed down upon what remained of The Arbiter's decks, engulfing the vessel and threatening to tear men from her buckling hull. One of the rotors snapped under the strain and the main sail collapsed, breaking through a large portion of the bow. Cannons dropped to the ocean below and men struggled to keep their compatriots, and themselves, inside the flooding holds.
            "Ha!" cheered Grum, emerging from the water with a flick of his shaved head. Wheel still in hand, he grinned and righted the vessel to sail into Argenstrath harbor. "I knew ye'd see things my way!" he laughed.
            "Grum!" called a man emerging from the lower hold. "The captain's..."
            "I already know!" Grum snapped back. "He's dead, ain't he? How else do you think we lived!? Tell the quartermaster he's gotta keep this bitch afloat till we can get a tow from Argenstrath. Have comms request one immediately. Move your feet man, we've got work to do!"
            "Aye!" called the man before disappearing back below deck.
            "Full wind to your sails Captain Karset. A full wind to your sails."