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The Grand River

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Alpha Tester
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It goes by many names.  The Mother, the Layett, the Shield of the East, and dozens more in local dialects.  Most commonly, it is known simply as The Grand River.  Legends tell of strange and wonderful creatures as well as nereids and other fantastical beings. 

The tributaries and cataracts run across four nations, with the course of the river itself flowing in both directions from its headsprings in the border mountains.  One could see the icecaps and islands of the frozen northern sea and end up in the warm waters of the southern delta at the river's end.  If only times of peace allowed for such travels...

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD
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Smoke from thousands of machines filled the skies around Nosha.  All homes that could afford it would certainly be burning what coal was provisioned, even as it was well in to the Month of Grapes.  The Northwestern District's capitol city knew but a short spring, but this was like no other spring - this was the year in which Estrek would rise up and begin the final war with Astraka.  That ancient rival for too long had provoked the nation of Estrek, and denied rights to those unfortunates who had been caught on the western side of the river.  A hundred years now since the Great Revolution...at last this proud nation would have its revenge.  The smoke from hundreds of chimneys was not what a visitor would notice upon visiting this city, but rather the smoke from its factories and especially from its waterfront.  Here was the Grand River at its widest point, more appropriately called a sea, given its dimensions.  Never in human memory had this area not been occupied by fishers, river kings, bandits, warlords, or some government or another.  This was where the Inner Sea Navy of Estrek was based, and where the Army's staff would meet to decide the final plans for its invasion.

 

The port remained busy, with dozens of boats of various types across both civilian and military piers.  Out in the water were the ever-present fishermen, as well as the rare passenger liner leaving for the south.  Two of the four shallow draft battleships were present.  These were purpose built for fighting on the Inner Sea - a serious message when they were built twenty years prior.  Now, like everything else, they had taken on the character of everything (and everyone) else in Nosha - scarred, well worn, and embittered by the cold.

 

The Captain was invited on the Third Day of the strategic meeting.  It would be easy to miss him in the sea of brass and epaulettes of the higher officers, but this was no ordinary captain, and his mission would be even less ordinary."The Enemy is Everywhere," so said the poster in the trolley station, underneath a ridiculous, weedy caricature of an Oberland spy.  All knew the type.  He was a constant figure in the projector shows that preceded every national masterpiece.  The government of Estrek allowed movies of artistic license, but the door was shut before the newsreels and propaganda shorts began.  Leisure was appropriate and healthy, but civic duty was never to be forgotten.

Before long the trolley arrived and The Captain was taken to the local Defense Ministry headquarters.  Citizens gave The Captain a wide berth, none wanting to be the one to delay an officer in pursuit of his duties.  The Captain paid them no mind.  He was not here to make friends, and he liked that reputation.

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD
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Alpha Tester
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The meeting began at midmorning.  It was not until now, the third day, that the Staff Officers had deigned to finalize the naval plans.  Of course the army would take priority, this being a land invasion after all, and the navy had never been more than a hobby for higher bureaucrats since the fall of the old regime.  Nevertheless, the fleet's mission would be important in the opening days of war.

After the formalities of the meeting and the strategic overview were conducted, the High Admiral's eye fell upon The Captain and his sponsor, Second Admiral Markon.  "And now, Admiral Markon.  What is this about this diversion on the Wind River?"  The High Admiral's dismissive tone gave good indication of his thoughts on the plan of his colleague.  Second Admiral Markon stood; "Respectfully, High Admiral, I prefer to allow Captain Fors to brief you."

This was as The Captain expected.  His would be the onus if the attack - not a diversion - should fail.  He stood and was offered a pointing rod.  The Captain approached the map of the north, ignoring the dismissive manner in which the High Admiral referred to this first strike.  The High Admiral regarded Fors with disdain.  He had known him as the silent type, with cold eyes like some sort of pale northern fish, revealing nothing about his thoughts.  It was that practiced stoicism which had not seen him brought up on charges of nepotism after years of naval service going back to the revolution.  The High Admiral disliked a man who wasn't even known to drink and considered The Captain to be overly formal and therefore untrustworthy.  Fors thought of the High Admiral as a "fartbag," a derivation of "windbag" from his own district, used to describe someone who acts in an undignified manner.

Fors explained how his force of Gunboats would come from the base of Varyandar on the Ice Sea and would strike across the Tributary of the Grand River, commonly known as Wind River.  Taking the Oberlanders off guard, he would destroy their famed torpedo boats before they could amass for a counterattack.  The rocketships would then follow up and target the garrisons and equipment of the Oberland troops, blunting any attack they had planned to launch upon the outbreak of war.  The Gunboats would be unlikely to return, and The Captain along with them, but this would allow Estrekan forces to consolidate their attack and achieve success before the allied powers of Kalak and Oberland could respond.  Satisfied that his point was made, Captain Fors returned to his seat.  

"Thank you Captain.  My men will certainly appreciate the efforts of your brave crews."  The Marshall was much more diplomatic than his naval counterpart.  It was a kind enough gesture.  All knew of the army's primacy.  One had only to look at the aging ships both at sea and river to understand.  Captain Fors did not care though.  He was a Navy man.  His father was a Navy man.  His grandfather was a Navy man.  His sons would be Navy men, once they came into their primacy.  Fors' only concern - some said his only show of humanity - was that the war would end before that time came.  This was the thought on his mind as he accepted the risk of leading the first strike on Oberland soil.

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD
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Into the night the passenger train chugged along.  Most of the passengers were citizens returning to the northern provinces after the end of winter.  Most of them probably tree cutters or other workers who had spent the winter plying their trade away from the icy death of a winter in northern Estrek.  Military officers were afforded every courtesy, of course.  Had he the inclination, the Captain could have received preferential service in the bar.  He was content to remain in his cabin, however, where he was served also served his meals.  The Captain looked up from his work into the night.  The snow was beginning to retreat from the trees and the ground.  Soon the passengers would find their stations and disembark, but he would continue until the rail line stopped, at the far reaches of Estrek at Otosk.  

Otosk was the naval base on the northern sea, and it was considered a hard assignment.  The locals were hardened fishermen who dared to risk their lives both against the drifting ice as well as the monstrous creatures that lurked beneath that dark surface.  The Captain was unconcerned with this reputation.  He had no need for the company of floozies or the other diversions that were known amongst sailors.  For him, it was merely the staging ground of his expedition.  From the gateway into the River Layett, south down the ancient boundary of Estrek and Oberland, hopefully past the enemy's patrol boats, and finally down the Wind River...into the heart of the enemy country.  This ambitious plan took most of his time as he did his detailed work in his cabin.  Maps and detailed arrows, concentration of enemy troops, the disposition of enemy ships, and the army's plans...this sort of work was of the level that should long ago have put Fors in the position of an admiral.  He understood the bureaucracy and the corruption that kept him in his position.  It was that same work, however, that meant that he was admired amongst those he had trained, even if none of those junior officers would have been the one to want to share a cabin with him.  Being a leader meant being stern and lonesome, but not cruel or arbitrary.  Even if he had few political friends, he also had no dirt on him.

Captain Fors took off his reading glasses and looked down at the work before him...and his uneaten plate of cheeses and pheasant.  'I will relax this one night.'  He thought, 'These are probably the last days of my life that I may have the opportunity.'  There was nothing after death; the Captain was no superstitious fool like the old villagers.  But he had three strong sons.  They would live if the war came to a speedy conclusion.  That meant that he would live on.

The Captain stood at the window and stroked the bushy black (but graying) beard that covered his chin and collar.  Outside the window the Captain could see the hills and the trees.  Thousands of trees...tens of thousands.  He knew that if not for the noise from the engine and the tracks, he would hear wolves howling in the distance.  Civilization was far behind.  From here, his journey would only become rougher.  This was the life of a servant of the people.  Those same people now assuredly asleep in their cramped passenger quarters.  He knew they resented his special status.  Ingrates all of them - they did not understand service, only the base desires of their bellies and their private parts.  But how may of them would be affected by the coming war?  The Captain pondered this for a moment: will the robust and hardy men going to work in the north escape the call of service for long?  That would remain to be seen.  The captain finished his meal and laid out his uniform in his usual meticulous fashion, ready for the next day, when he would further refine his plan.

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD

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"You aren't getting paid by the hour!  Put your backs into it.  Work harder!"  The Warrant Officer moved amongst the men, encouraging the line to stock up on provisions and padding.  He was dressed in a black service uniform that all sailors wore.  Bareheaded as he moved across the dock, he eschewed the greatcoat and ushyanka worn by most of the sailors.  It was a pointed message;  'I am sweating too much to be cold.  Why aren't you, sailor?'  Warrant Officer Brevas was the image of competence.  Shaven head, craggy features, and a long moustache in the style of a cavalryman of ages past.  He was one of five of his rank who would fight on this boat.  A pity, The Captain thought, that the navy would lose men such as this in attack with such a low chance of survivability.

The shells were loaded first, of course.  There was a saying in Estrek, familiar to all since their childhood military training:  'Saber, pistol, horse, and rider.'  It was anachronistic in this age of tanks and steel sided ships, harkening back to the days long before the Great Revolution, when Estrekians fielded great armies of horsemen to combat both the Urghin horselords from across the great plain, as well as the raiding armies of Nordlanders and the ponderous (but well armed) armies of Mitgard.  Mitgard, now simply called the Midlands, long ago had formed a union with the Nordlanders and created the powerful empire of Oberland.  Even after the reforms of the Great Revolution, the armies of Oberland had surpassed all others in number and in raw military power.  That balance of power had been shifted in the past century, however.  Now, the mounted aristocracy was abolished, and the reforms had seen rise to a professional fighting force of combined arms.  Of course, traditions die hard, and these simpletons were led just as brutally under their officers as they ever were under the mounted Boyars of ages past.  

The Navy was generally not given the highest priority, nor did it get the best recruits.  This was a point of contention between the Naval Officers and their army counterparts for almost a century.  A sailor has to have a rudimentary understanding of mathematics, mechanics, and general ship operations in order to perform his duties sufficiently.  The compromise had been to establish a special rank of Warrant Officer to act as in intermediary between the Officers and the men.  These were men selected from the ranks, usually from some sort of background relating to work in a port.  Some were simply outstanding sailors who could understand advanced mathematics.  The Captain considered how vital these men were to the operations of his ship, both for supervising the lazy sailors and for ensuring that their jobs were performed correctly.

'His ship'...to think of it as such did it more credit than it deserved.  He would be commanding a gunboat of the Dertzki class.  Hardly bigger than a civilian fisher, but still bigger than his anticipated foes, it was an unwieldy looking thing.  Deck guns without casemates ran from bow to stern, with five torpedo launchers amidship.  He would command a flotilla of four of these along with six Onhohnik, converted from their original design to carry six rocket launcher platforms in place of its torpedoes and guns.  These rivercraft were designed for a battle on the inner sea more than fifty years ago.  Compared to the oceangoing destroyers that The Captain had commanded and taught, they were hopelessly outgunned.  His mission was not to fight on the sea, however.  This would be a knife fight on the Grand River, and these ships were more than sufficient to sweep aside the tiny torpedoboats of Oberland's River Fleet.

 

After supervising the last of the pre-launch loading and checks of the guns, Warrant Officer Brevas approached The Captain and came to a smart halt.  "All preparations complete, Captain," he saluted.  Captain Fors, observing all from the dock, raised a gloved hand to the front of his officer's ushyanka.  "Very well Warrant Officer.  Have the men go to mess and put them to rest.  We leave at first light."  "It shall be so," Brevas responded in the appropriate fashion.  He called the men into a formation and had them march to the mess.  The sailors all exhaled, breath visible in the light of the fading sun.  Warrant Officer Brevas seemed unaffected by the icy cold - he was as hardy and resilient as an icebreaker.  Everything was ready.  The other ships of the flotilla had been completed, and now The Captain had only to give a final brief to their commanders as to when the operation would begin.  Captain Fors took one final look at his command before leaving for the Officer's brief.  The sky was the color of a pale salmon, and the water itself looked nearly black.  The wind was not too great and the sky was clear.  The storms of winter were over, and he knew that he would need to reiterate that caution would be needed for drifting ice as the flotilla moved southward.  Of course the ice this far north wouldn't melt for months, and even then not all of the snow would retreat from this inhospitable tundra.  The locals who lived here were descendants of the Kargan tribe - blonde haired, high cheekboned, and morose of disposition.  They made their living as possible but knew of little except fishing and of war.  Many of the crewmen were from the same stock.  That was good - the fewer university volunteers our soft, southern city dwellers, the better.  The Captain was confident that he had a robust force capable of sweeping anything from the river until he could complete his mission.  After that, the only orders were to not be taken alive.  Fors subconsciously put his hand on his service revolver, ensuring that it had not stuck to the leather in this arctic weather.  Yes, he was prepared to fight...and he was prepared to use the last bullet to deny the enemy his knowledge as well.

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The flotilla sailed in formation past the northern mouth of the River Layett.  The air was bitterly cold, but thankfully there was little breeze to make life worse.  The Captain stood at the bridge, saying nothing but for the occasional command.  Enlisted men kept to their stations, with those not on a gun patrolling the deck with long recovery hooks.  These tools were as necessary as water in the northern waters; Ice Crabs, with a carapace twice as wide as a man and spidery legs that spanned more than twenty feet, infested these waters.  It was not uncommon for them to climb aboard a ship or to drag an unwary sailor down with them.  Their spindly limbs did not look powerful, but the grip of their pincers were strong enough to sever a man's arm or leg, and even if they merely dragged you under, the icy water would kill you within minutes.  These were not the only natural hazards - the Yellow, Cross Eyed Sharks were even more deadly and aggressive, but they couldn't simply take you off of your boat.  The Mother River was indeed mother to any number of brutally efficient killers, and the crew would need to take different precautions as they moved to warmer climes.

 

Captain Fors did not need to pay mind to the wildlife.  His eyes were forward, where the enemy would be.  Standing resplendent in his greatcoat and ushyanka, he contemplated the double meaning in putting his eyes to the south...and the Sea of Ice behind him.  Twenty years ago, the navy of the Federated Duchies of the far west had fought a great battle with Estrek's Navy here.  Arrogantly assuming that Estrekians were not sailors, and that their colossal navy would sweep the Estrekians aside, the Federated Duchies had sought to impose oiling and fishing restrictions across the Sea of Ice.  None truly cared about whose fishermen traversed the deadly sea, but the all important oil had become a major factor of contention, what now with the invention of the oil engine and the appearance of the first landships (or tanks, as they became known).  

The battle lasted two days, with Estrek's fleet winning a victory which shocked the world.  The Federation lost twice the tonnage and their bargaining power, with most of the damaged ships having to run aground to save their crews.  There was a legend in the west of their men marching eight hundred miles across Oberland, arriving in neutral Kalak wearing reindeer pelts and sporting beards grown during their anabasis.  Captain Fors thought this foolish romanticism.  If anything, the Oberlanders had merely allowed them to pass because they had no reason to send its army against desperate men.  If anything, the danger had been from the nightmare steeds, the wolves and other natural dangers that all were familiar with already...and they had an ad hoc army with which to do it with.  Some great adventure...

The Captain and the gunboat were both veterans of that battle, called "The Battle of the Ice Sea" in Estrek and "The Battle of Icebergs" in the west.  Of course the propagandists painted a glorious picture, full of heroism and sacrifice.  Lieutenant Fors, as he was then, saw no glory or heroism.  He was chief navigation officer aboard the ENS Maora during the battle.  His memories were two days under a lamp, fighting off exhaustion, and plotting the fleet's movements and tracking the position of the drifting ice - a foe just as deadly as a Battleship's shell, in the right circumstance.  ENS Maora was still in service too, now reclassified as a River Monitor.  Technology had made many of Estrek's ships obsolescent, but they had a reputation of throwing nothing away.  Of course the victory was lost in the end.  Oberland was an intervening power, and had declared that the majority of the Sea of Ice was within its rightful sea zone, with Estrek receiving a pitiful amount of sea for drilling.  None were in a position to oppose Oberland.  They had recently withdrawn from the Quadrilateral Accords and acted at the direction of their Emperor, not the combined nations of the world.  More too the point, they were as oil hungry as anyone, and the Federation was in no position to protest, having lost three of their proud Battleships to a nation long considered to be the worst of the First Powers in terms of seapower.

All of that would be avenged in the weeks to come.  The Captains ships would decimate Oberland's eastern army reserves and, more importantly, its farthest eastern supply base.  The damage would be undone in time, of course, but not before Estrek's tank forces had penetrated deep into perfidious Kalak and pointed a knife at the heart of Oberland.  A counterattack across the Grand River would then be unthinkable with a threat to Varungal, the capitol city of Oberland.  Kalak would never again be a great power.  They had held Estrek at bay for the last century, but their war would be pitifully short, all the Marshals agreed.  The war with Oberland would be longer, of course, but ultimately Estrek would win.  Who would come to their aid?  Once Kalak was dismembered and made powerless, the largest nation on the northern continent would be isolated on every side.  Peace would be dictated in an Estrekian Council Chamber and, this time, it would be a lasting peace.

 

The Captain checked himself.  He was not prone to letting his mind wander.  Indeed he had always been noted for his great focus and clarity of thought.  Even his enemies within the naval service did not underestimate him.  He looked at the bridge chronometer - an hour past high noon.  Captain Fors said to his first officer, "You have the watch Subcommander Yarov."  "I have the watch.  It is so," came the immediate response.  The Captain retired below for his first meal of the day in the officer's quarters.  The interior of the ship was hardly any warmer.  Padding lined the walls, but still the cold river managed to penetrate into the ship.  He ate a simple meal of onion, steamed clam, and millet.  Putting on his near-glasses, he surveyed his personal map which he worked himself.  It was well to have a navigator, but there was no better navigator than himself in Estrek's navy, and he was the type of man to double check anything.  Two days at cruising speed, and the flotilla would pass the first cataract.  That was when contact was most likely.  In fact, The Captain counted on it.  

Handing his plate to an orderly, The Captain removed his near-glasses, donned his helmet, and took the receiver off of the nearest intercomm.  It was past time he put the flotilla through its first battle drill.

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD

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On the third day of the mission, the only ice in sight is that on the peaks that run deep into the hinterland of the enemy's country.  Only the near ones can be seen from the river, but The Captain knows they extend for hundreds of miles.  On the eastern shore, still visible in the fading mist.  The eastern banks of Layatt are not so treacherous here, which is one of the reasons that military district seven is so often patrolled by archaic horse militias.  Better for their own safety that they cannot see us in this weather.  This attack is of the utmost secrecy.  The invasion of Kalak, of course, is also supposed to be a secret...but amassing an army of ten million is a much more overt buildup than a surprise attack by ten small ships.

The Captain walked onto the bridge at midmorning.  No longer dressed in greatcoat and ushyanka, he wore the simple black of a navy officer, and the wide brimmed cap of the service.  All duties were performed with as little speech as possible.  The crew had been drilled mercilessly over the past three days.  Captain Fors would have preferred three weeks, at a minimum, but the General Staff did not see things his way.  Sailors were merely there to perform their functions.  The officers would know the plans, and the men would obey orders - simple as that.  The Captain was a perfectionist in everything, however, and his stern reputation for completeness was legendary even on the big ships.  For five years, he had taught prospective captains to plan, have a backup plan, and to have a tertiary plan in case all went to hell...and then to be prepared to plan all over again.  His written tests were the bane of many junior officers, and that was the easy part, they learned, once it came to performance evaluations at sea.

The Captain glanced at the bridge chronometer.  In twenty six minutes, the formation would form an echelon, maximizing their linear coverage of the first cataract.  Should the Oberlanders decide to place scouts or gun emplacements at the first cataract, they would be decimated before they could even send a message over a landline.

The first cataract was passed without incident, as were the second and the third.  The next hundred miles would be clear unless an enemy patrol decided that it was the day to patrol the river...or to test Estrek's resolve as a nation.  The Oberlanders had always treated Estrek with contempt.  Even before The Great Revolution, Estrekians were seen as a nation of ignorant peasants lorded over by merciless boyars.  Now, they were seen as a nation of ignorant peasants, lorded over by bureaucrats and military officials.  Well in that regard, they weren't wrong, The Captain would have agreed.  Citizens were often ignorant and needed to be taught right from wrong, for their own good.  In the bad old days, justice in the provinces was arbitrary and brutal, often owing to the whims of the local boyar or of a judge who placed personal feelings above the letter of the law.  Citydwellers were no better, fighting each other for baubles and scraps in between shifts at the factory.  Now a common law bound all Estrekians together, where no man can escape justice or take more than his share in life from another.  The Great Revolution had done nothing to Estrek which had not already existed.  Having been regarded so poorly by other nations, it was better that they instilled fear and respect than derision and dismissiveness.

****************************

Time and again the crews went to drills without incident.  Young men from various backgrounds made up the crews of Captain Fors' command.  Before a rivalry or ethnic tension could ever hope to surface, he ensured that at worst they would be too tired for a petty dispute.  Some of the boys had never even been at sea before.  Tending livestock and riding horses for twenty odd years may not give you natural sea legs, but The Captain had broken in pampered sons of officials with no problem, even turning a few into proper naval officers.  The men would be up to the task, he knew.  The flotilla entered the wide mouth of the Wind River in perfect formation, again without incident.

This was not a battlefield.  On either side were sheer cliffs, offering no flank, no retreat.  Whoever crossed the path of the flotilla forfeited their lives, or in another scenario, the flotilla would be destroyed.  In any case, there was but one way: upriver, fighting both the current and the powerful winds which gave the river its name.

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The flotilla maneuvered with clocklike precision up the wide, meandering river.  Past each turn, the lookouts and gunners prepared for an ambush, seeing no farther than a mile or two at most between the brown cliffs on either side of every turn.  Every so often, the men would glance at the smaller rivers which branched off into their own isolated tunnels, some becoming rivers in their own right while others quickly became rushing rapids.  The Captain, helmeted and standing rigid on the lead boat, looked over his shoulder at the bridge chronometer before double checking his personal pocketwatch.  Half an hour past high noon.  Good.  This progress would see them past the most treacherous part of their journey by nightfall...or at least the most naturally treacherous.  Leaving nothing to chance, he remained at his post, leaving no risk of an incompetent officer losing time or valuable equipment.

From under the brim of his rust-brown helmet, The Captain noticed the chief signalman of the boat looking at his watch...probably in envy, or perhaps with the disdain sort of misplaced ideological purity.  "Eyes on your sector, Mister Kroslak," The Captain said without looking up.  Scared stiff, the signalman nearly jumped back to facing outboard, his eyes coming to rest on one of the oversized Hell Snails which lived on parts of the bank which were level.  Four feet high and with a sickeningly long body, the men all knew that when they came out of their shells, they were able to stun their prey with an extremely painful venom.  The fear of pain was something most Estrekian boys learned to cope with almost as soon as they could talk...but the thought of being paralyzed and eaten alive was enough to test even the bravest man's resolve.

The Captain said nothing for the next four hours.  The final turn and now the Flotilla was out of the rocky pass.  "Slow your speed to one quarter, signal attack squadron to form Vee Formation," The Captain said abrubtly.  The signal was passed by flag and the squadron obliged him.  The rocket ships in the rear now moved into position close behind and between the gunboats, relying on them for defense.  With that, the mountains came to an end and the banks on either side of the river were lined with trees growing past the muddy red banks.  The crews would operate at no less than 50% from here on.  The Estrekian flotilla was deep in the heart of Oberland.  Oberland may have been a massive country, covering a fifth of all the land on the continent, but it was possible that scouts, militias, or even a vigilant fisherman might observe and do his duty to report this war party.  The Captain was a first rate commander, and he was always prepared for something that was "possible."

The contact came at the twilight hour, earlier than it would be in Estrek, of course - the journey had indeed taken the flotilla hundreds of miles.  Two V-25 scout/torpedoboats were immediately identified as soon as they were within viewing distance.  These were the exact ships which The Captain expected to encounter - the most deadly, in his estimation, shallow drafted vessels the enemy could possibly field.  The signal to ready all weapons was given in moments.  The rocketships came to a near halt and formed a half coil for mutual protection.  The four gunboats set themselves to flanking speed and prepared to do battle with the enemy.  They were well within gunrange by the time the enemy noticed the four Dertzkis.  The challenging floodlight came on just as The Captain gave the order to open fire and envelop them.  The Oberlanders were caught completely off guard.  The forward enemy ship was targeted and became a mass of shell explosions and debris before the other began to maneuver.  "Intensive fire target number 1, five hundred meters.  Ships one and two, go to half speed.  Ships three and four, press forward and envelop target two."  The command was relayed by shouts and flags as it repeated itself from ship to ship.  The Captain had access to a wireless, but refused to use it until his payload had been delivered.  These two enemy ships would be destroyed and no one would know until it was too late.

The second ship was alive with scrambling men in various states of readiness.  Some were without their shoes.  The forward gun was being put into action, The Captain could see through his commander's binoculars.  "Ship two, shift fire to target two.  Rapid rate," The Captain passed the order before giving his own orders to his own boat:  "All guns to starboard - Target two.  Range four hundred meters," he shouted in a voice like thunder.  The quiet, pensive Captain now looked and sounded every bit like a lion in mortal combat with a bear.  The repeated calls from his guncrews, followed by the ready phrase, 'on target,' reverberated across the ship.  "Rapid rate, Fire!"  The Captain's voice boomed across the waters as his guns answered him.  The first enemy ship was already attempting to make a retreat, but it was by now a burning hulk and succeeded only in drifting into the sandbar.  Driving up mud as it cut deep into the bank, The Captain gave orders to the machinegunners to kill any trying to escape onto land as well as those who had tried to dive into the frigid snowmelt which fed the river from the mountians to the west.  Men were cut down like grain as they tried to leap off their ship for the safety of the woods.  Ruthless, hardbitten Estrekian sailors killed the vaunted Oberland warriors as though they were killing insects.  If any did survive, or escape, they would be few and far from anyone.  It would be at least a day before they could raise the alarm, and by then it would be too late.

The battle was not over, however.  Recovering from its initial shock, the second enemy vessel had now corrected itself and began its attack alone.  The Oberlanders clearly knew that they could not hope to run, and they were determined to do as much as they could before they met their death.  The Captain gave the order to shift all fires to the remaining gunboat, but it had already closed the distance and would certainly succeed at taking a Dertzki down with it.  The interrogative came from the commander of Ship 3, to which the Captain simply ordered that he would make contact with the enemy ship.  There was nothing else to do - if that commander decided to be clever, he would be blown apart by a torpedo at close range and the V-25 would die anyway.  His only chance at living was to ram.  The commander apparently understood this, or at least was disciplined enough to comply, and ram he did.  Within less than a minute of disabling the first enemy, the second was being pierced through its frontal hull by the Estrekian gunboat.  The enemy had managed to launch its forward torpedoes, but there was no time for maneuver or accuracy, and they sped through the water on either side of the Dertzki before exploding on the riverbank, sending thick red clay through the air and for hundreds of meters in every direction.

The two ships looked as if they were grappling, with the smaller Oberland ship being pushed back and sideways as its hull began to come apart.  The two ships were locked together as one misshapen mass and they began to sink into the middle of the river.  The Captain gave orders to Ship 4 to commence rescue operation while 1 and 2 moved up to provide security.  Oberlanders swimming from the wreck were shot down by machinegun, while those appealing to humanity were shoved back with the long poles like so many ice crabs and shot with machinepistols.  Those that could be rescued from Ship 3 were rescued and brought on board.  Even before the last Estrekian was retrieved from the water, The Captain gave the signal for the rocketships to resume their formation.  

The brown water was tinged with clay, oil, and blood as the sun began its descent over the western horizon.  Recovery operations were speedily conducted simultaneously with preparations to continue.  By sunset the formation was back in place.  Now three gunboats in the lead - driving into the heart of Oberland.

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The Captain came on deck just as sun began its descent.  This was the decisive night.  This may very well be the last sunset he and his men would ever see.  Silent, as usual, Captain Fors reflected over a life spent in service.  The river had turned to the north, past the Serpent Mountains, and the last snow flurries of spring reminded him of his boyhood.  Waiting for his father to return, watching the road for any sign of horse, automobile, or wagon which would bring him home again.  His father was a stern man, but he always made time for his children and placed his family above all other things.  The scarred sea captain was not the character who taught young Alexandros Fors what it was to be a man.  "What is the most important attribute of a navyman, papa?"  he had once asked.  His father's answer was simple:  "Honor.  Honor is timeless and it is what a man owes to himself.  People will not act this way to you, which is why it is important for you to not let this virtue perish."  This was surprising to Alexandros, as he was taught like all Estrekian youths about service to the people.  Honor was normally seen as a vanity of the old ruling class with their fuss and feathers...but he took the lesson to heart.  His own sense of honor was what he held very close and personal, and his own sons would carry that virtue long after he perished deep beyond the border of the enemy nation.

The sun disappeared behind yet another western mountain range just as the river came to its end in the lake known as Freya's Spring.  It was a clear lake on almost any day, when not being polluted by the cargo boats from the northern mines or the flotillas of the Oberland river transports.  Those transports were the rapid conveyance of any land force with which Estrek would be invaded.  In days of old, the river had been the path by which Nordish raiders had launched expeditions into the southern and eastern lands.  Tonight, centuries of destruction would be revisited upon their descendants.

"Formation.  Echelon left all gunships.  Rocketships form firing position."  The Captain set the flotilla in formation for the attack.  Thirty miles they would sail under cover of darkness and then they would strike.  The time passed quickly in the fading light.  The Oberland fortress looked as peaceful as its many weapons allowed it to.  Lights from numerous homes and taverns gave a welcoming sight.

"Increase to flanking speed.  Gunships form line astern, bearing 4200.  All guns to port.  Make ready, all torpedoes."  The Dertzkis began to cut through the water and sail directly towards the anchored enemy ships.  The Captain made one final check of his pocketwatch and the bridge chronometer.  Standing on the bridge like a line officer of the olden days, The Captain ordered his ship to commence firing.  The volley signalled all weapons to open fire, and the night was brought to life by the deadly, rapid fire of the deck cannons.  The crew began shouting and repeating commands over the din, and the torpedoes were sent to the moored military craft - lying helpless - as the rocketships began to fire on deep targets.  The rockets shrieked like banshees as they created a sheaf of destruction well beyond the water.  Explosions reverberated across the lake as depots, buildings, and equipment were destroyed.  

"All hard to starboard!" The Captain shouted, now as animated as the hardworking crews.  The gunboats began their second pass, targeting dockside facilities and anything military which did not appear to be sufficiently destroyed.  The Captain gave the order for the rocketships to begin their withdrawal - his own gunboats would cover them from any counterattack.  Counterattack was highly unlikely, at least for the day.  By the time his ships were facing to the east, the whole of the military complex was an inferno.  The blazes spread in the breeze and explosions followed as more and more equipment was set alight.  Even in the blaze, however, enemy artillery began to fire wildly across the lake.  Some of the men of Oberland had managed to return fire...more for the sake of the flag than anything (the shells landed nowhere near the flotilla).

The last of the rockets were sent on their way as the flotilla began speeding north east, hoping to avoid any observation from the shore before they could make it to the relative safety of the Wind River.  The Captain was unable to make a proper assessment of his attack, but the fires burned well past the hour which he had escaped the lake.  Glancing at the bridge chronometer, Captain Fors allowed himself to smile publicly and even gave his bridge crew a "Well done," before retiring below.  The pre-dawn offensive should begin at any moment now.  The Oberlanders had been caught unaware.  The Captain would sleep for a few hours, removing only his boots.  Tomorrow the enemy would throw everything they had left at him.

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The crews all kept one nervous eye to the sky as the morning light began to bring the world back to life.  The Captain was abovedeck well before dawn, helmeted and ready like the rest of his men.  The sunlight began to work its way down the northern cliff, but the crew did not witness the sunrise itself.  They were now well past the flat and open ground and had the high walls on either side of them.  The Captain may have expected to die on the mission, but he still had planned everything to give his crews the maximum chance for survival.  The flotilla had been burning through its fuel at full speed to escape.

The real problem from here would not be the pursuing aircraft or even the hostile land that surrounded the flotilla.  The enemy would now be alert and would cut off the exit from the Wind River to Mother Layett.  The Captain was not willing to chance that the Inner Sea Navy had established complete control of the greater Layett and he knew very well that the Grand Admiral would not have used his resources to secure the return of his flotilla.  The attack was a success, and even a great propaganda victory if all the crews died as heroes...but for the heroes to live would mean that they could take full credit for their attack, and they would be able to ride on that reputation to greater command.  The High Admiral was a petty man.  He should have retired years ago, but his favorable position within the Supreme Council kept him secure, and it was unlikely he would ever lead a battle again, so his reputation could not be tarnished by defeat.  'Such a shame,' The Captain thought, 'that many good men would have to die before new blood was brought in and much needed reforms put in place.'

There was no time for such thoughts now, however.  Somewhere, the buzzing of planes could be heard.  Lookouts and gunners eyed the sky nervously.  The sheer cliffs may have offered protection from close strikes, but they also limited visibility of the sky.  The Captain gave credit to his counterpart in the enemy's air service.  The sun had barely risen and the planes had estimated his position quite well.  Gunners on the deck traversed in all directions, prepared for the attack.  Ammomen stood by to reload and also to replace the barrel casings - these ships were still using the archaic water cooled machinegun...another thing which should have been upgraded at least five years ago.

"Enemy planes bearing 0200!"  came the call from Warrant Officer Brevas.  Guns traversed to respond to the airborne threat.  The Captain had anticipated the long Herschel 111s but these were a new design - much smaller, with wings that bent upwards.  They couldn't have housed more than one or two crewmen.  Dive bombers!  They were coming in extremely fast.  "Deflection fifty degrees, Rapid Rate, Fire!"  The Captain gave the order and it was transmitted to the flotilla.  All machineguns began firing a steady stream of death towards the lead bomber.  The corrections were on target and The Captain could see impacts, but these bombers were well armored.  The 9mm shells of his machineguns did not appear to have any effect.

Finally the lead bomber turned off and made for the north.  Apparently he had sustained some damage.  There were still three more behind him, these in much closer formation.  The Captain gave the order to shift and distribute fire accordingly.  The dive bombers began to open up with 20mm cannons.  Gunfire rippled across the water sending splashes all about the flotilla, but the fire was ineffective and the gun crews were not checked.  Just then the bombers did something completely unexpected...they were turning upside down.  Even The Captain did not expect to see something like this.  The three remaining bombers began to do what looked like a reverse Immelman and began to descend vertically into the river canyon.  'So that's how they use those things' The Captain thought, 'they make a loop over the target and fly straight away.'  Machineguns tried hopelessly to keep up with the enemy planes, now descending on the rocketships.

A massive explosion echoed off the cliffs as the bombers struck home on the rear rocketships.  The dive bombers pulled up, flying just above the flotilla before rounding past the next bend in the river 500 meters ahead.  These Oberland pilots had balls, that was for sure.  What they didn't have was a good choice of targets.  The rocketships were now basically useless, being slower than the gunboats and having expended their payloads.  The buzzing of aircraft was no longer to be heard.  The Captain ordered rescue and consolidation.  One rocketship was deeped unsalvageable and was ordered sunk.  The others sustained minor damage.  Casualties were significant, but not catastrophic.  The remaining crews would be more than enough to assist in the remainder of the journey.

Consolidation was swift and the medical orderlies went to work, trying their best to save the lives of those brought aboard the surviving ships.  Those burned too badly to save were given a mercy killing and given an impromptu burial in the river.  Within half an hour, three Dertzki gunboats and five improvised rocketships continued down the river at cruising speed.  The first counterattack had been blunted, although it would not be the last.  The Captain learned something from this encounter: the enemy had a new type of dive bomber and he had been stretched thin.  Any other attack would have been met with a massive fleet of aircraft, but the enemy could only spare this one squadron.  The land war was obviously well underway.  The Captain ordered the crews to rotate through mess while they had respite and retired below to make a report of the new weapon and to review his options.

Eating a plain lunch of rye bread and canned fish, The Captain looked over his maps of the riverlands - the obvious choice was to pick the wide cataract which would bring him back to the Layett, rather than to follow the Wind River to its end.  That route would lead him through an area certainly under the control of the enemy army, however.  A better bypass would be through the rapids.  The Captain had mapped these out and they were indeed passable, but they were treacherous and unpassable during the winter.  They did offer the advantage of being further to the South, however.  Unless it was an unseasonable year, and it wasn't, the chances were that snowmelt from the Serpent Ridge Mountains of Eastern Oberland would already begin to feed the small river named after them.  It was decided - the flotilla would pass south through the Serpent River and would challenge the crags and rushing waters.

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It was the third night since the attack when Captain Fors determined to send the signal home.  This would be the last break in the radio blocking mountains before entering the Serpent River, and if the relay stations were doing their jobs, then his message should be clear to the high command by the early morning.

* VANITY FADES BEFORE THE LOOKING GLASS *

* THE SKY IS DARK AT MORNING *

The twice encrypted message was sent in Estrekian naval code.  The phrases would be clearly understood:  Attack successful, damage to enemy ships and land facilities.  Requesting air support at Serpent River cataract.  The flotilla would soon be within air coverage space of Estrekian Air Forces.  The Captain anticipated attacks of every sort once his flotilla made it past the relative safety of the rapids.  Safety from men, anyway.

The rushing waters of the Serpent River could be heard the next morning.  A heavy mist hung over the river and seemed to condense as the flotilla turned to starboard, into that rapid brown current.  Sailors subconsciously gripped something near at hand to steady themselves or as a pacifying gesture.  The rocketships would have the roughest time passing through this.  Before the flotilla had passed even a mile, already the boats were beginning to rock heavily back and forward.  Warrant Officers and Officers shouted corrections on every bridge as others rushed to put on rain gear.  Waves began to lap over the deck and equipment was tested against its securing line.  More than one sailor lost footing and made a desperate scramble for the railing.  The Captain had no choice but to order the ships to proceed slowly.

The lead gunner on gunboat #4 began to scream and to dance around - a bright green octopus which had come ashore with the waves had managed to wrap its legs around HIS leg, and it was beginning to bite into it!  As crews on the other ships noticed the commotion, sailors began to eye the decks warily and were reminded by commanders to keep to their tasks.  For a moment, the higher and more exposed gunners as well as the helmsmen felt relief that they were above these new enemies, at least.  Eventually the commotion died down as the unfortunate gunner's comrades managed to pry the foul thing loose with a set of hooks...but none wanted to be the next one to test their luck against one of those things.

Of course the Four-Toothed Squid (it was not an actual octopus) was but one of the dangers lurking beneath these waters.  These mountains were scarcely traveled by man, and they had equally vicious monsters as those found in the river which cut through them.  The only men known to ever inhabit them were rebels against some of Oberland's more unpopular emperors or kings.

The Captain ordered his flotilla to keep as close to the eastern bank as possible.  A mechanical failure could not be repaired in the rushing waters, not that anyone was eager to try it otherwise.  More to the point, ships did not stay adrift on this river - its abrupt end would come only after it opened up into a wider lake.  It appeared calm enough, even peaceful, but at its end was a cliff with a 1500 foot drop.  Dragon Falls was a well known landmark in Eastern Oberland, and a danger to be avoided by anyone reckless enough to traverse this river in the first place.

As the flotilla approached the decisive turn, the mountains on either side of the river subsided and overhanging trees began to take their place.  All was going according to plan when suddenly there was the sound of pinging metal, followed by a machine gun burst.  "Traverse all guns to starboard facing.  Load General Purpose!"  The Captain gave the immediate order.  None could see who began to fire on them, but it would have had to have been from the interior.  "There!"  a lookout pointed, in his excitement stumbling before getting out the proper alert:  "Enemy!  Tank...umm..." he made his best estimation "four hundred meters."  "That's about five hundred," The Captain remarked to his Gunnery Officer.  "It is so, Captain," the Gunnery Officer responded before ordering the proper adjustments."  The range was right but it made no difference, the tank was a tiny scout armed with twin machinecannons.  It could displace without receiving the return salvo from the gunboats.

Shell after shell landed around the Oberland scout tank as it reappeared time and again beyond the trees.  "It must be on a road or something..." remarked the Gunnery Officer.  "I think you are correct," said The Captain.  "More to the point is that the enemy knows where we are, and he will be there to meet us before we can escape.  The Gunnery Officer looked at The Captain nervously but trusting that he would have the correct solution to this new problem.  "Send message to all ships - we are going to fight the enemy on our terms.  Stand by to receive headings and instructions.  You have the bridge, Mister Gorash."

The Captain went below to examine his map in detail.  Turning back would be pointless, remaining in the narrow space would only delay a committed attack.  The best choice was to anticipate an intercept by enemy ships - more than like a squadron of V-25s, and to fight them where they had room to maneuver.  He would fight to the death above Dragon Falls.  The Captain looked at the calendar.  "Forgive me, Jason," he said, thinking of his son's graduation from the Academy in the next week.  He would not be there to attend, but he had raised strong sons.  The next officer to bear the proud name of Fors would not be held back from excellence by mere sentimentality.

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD

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It was a rare clear day in Nosha.  The late spring was beginning and the thaw over the northern districts was already evident from the window view of the Defense Ministry Headquarters.  Outside, the streets were mostly clear of traffic.  Even the railways seemed to operate at a slackened pace.  This would all change very soon.  No one knew which would come first: the rains of spring or the returning boxcars of wounded.  Combat replacements would also certainly make their way through very soon.  The city merchants and prostitutes saw as much opportunity in conflict as the arms ministries.  On the river, troop ferries were lined up neatly, ready to transport tens of thousands of men and hundreds of armored vehicles into the Northern Strategic Direction.  It was in this very building where the details of the northern campaign had been hashed out, and still various staff officers worked until late in the night, coordinating naval maneuvers on the wide river.  It was quite the contrast from mere days before, when the city was one huge, complex machine with lots of moving parts.  Very soon it would look that way again.

High Admiral Bowenet was not one of those hard working staff officers.  He was naval attaché to the Marshall in command of the Northern Strategic Direction.  Not that he minded playing second fiddle.  His ambitions already achieved, what he hoped for now was for nothing more than to remain safely in Nosha...far from the front, but in a position of great importance.  The High Admiral had spent the better part of the day approving plans and adding his signature to one document or another.  It was all very tedious and below his level of responsibility, but the Bureau had its customs, and so he did what was required.  He looked down at his wristwatch - five hours past high noon.  Enough!  There was to be a gala he did not intend to miss that evening.  The rest of these signatures would have to wait.

Just as the High Admiral stood to make ready his departure, an orderly entered the wide office with an encrypted message, the red plastic seal still broken in his hands.  The orderly's boots struck the wooden floor as he approached urgently, and the sound echoed off of the huge, almost ballroom-like office.  "Well what is it," Bowenet demanded, making his irritation clear to the young orderly.  "Forgive me, High Admiral.  This message just came through.  The attack on Oberland's reserve fleet was a great success!"  Showing no approval of the youth's enthusiasm, the High Admiral took the message from his hand and gave it a look.  "A successful diversion...and?"  Looking into the eyes of the orderly for the first time, the Admiral saw his elation turn to a controlled disappointment.  "Well I have read it.  Dismissed!"  The orderly turned about on his heel and quickly left the room.  

The High Admiral hated to see that Captain Fors' plan succeed, but he took some small pleasure in ruining the afternoon for an overly enthusiastic young staff officer.  The High Admiral considered the ramifications of the attack as he slowed and returned to his seat.  ‘It says here that old Shark Eyes succeeded.  So...the Oberlanders lost a few ships and I have rid myself of a troublesome aristocrat,' the High Admiral thought.  Not that Captain Fors was an aristocrat in any archaic sense, but his name was powerful in the navy, particularly amongst those students whose loyalty he had earned.  The family was a famous one, and most of that was due to the efforts of Alexandros Fors himself...but he would soon be forgotten.  The High Admiral looked at his desk calendar, sitting upright between two bookends in the likeness of leaping river trout.  High Admiral Bowenet picked up his office phone receiver and made a direct line call.

"Office of the Superintendent.  How may I help you, sir?"  the voice on the other end of the phone asked.  "Put Admiral Lestrev on the phone.  Tell him High Admiral Bowenet wishes to speak with him."  "It shall be so at once, sir," answered the clerk.  After a brief wait, the Superintendent of the Naval Officer's School was greeting the High Admiral and asking what he would like to know.  The High Admiral reclined in his chair as he looked through one of the day's documents which had caught his eye: a new type of high seas destroyer, the first model of the new Destroyer Leader class, an Ahgnevey.  A ridiculous concept, the High Admiral thought.  Neither a proper hunter nor a ship of the line, but something somewhere in between.  A ship class certain to be doomed to the scrap heap after encountering the much more purpose built destroyers and light cruisers of the enemy.  All ridiculous projects dreamed up by engineers and theorists.  High Admiral Bowenet was a battleship man - subtlety was something he did not care for.  "You have amongst your soon to be graduates one midshipman Fors, do you not?"  the High Admiral asked after exchanging pleasantries.  "Absolutely sir.  Jason Fors is second in his class.  A fast learner and a perfectionist, just like his old man."  The High Admiral winced at being reminded of the respect that name commanded, but his voice gave no tell of it.  "Excellent.  I also have an interest in seeing the lad do well.  In fact, there is a prototype ship which I believe that he would be perfect for.  Perhaps you have heard of 'Projekt 177e?'"  The Superintendent was elated, "Absolutely sir!  To have his first assignment on a brand new destroyer.  His father will be very proud indeed."  "Indeed.  See that it is so," the High Admiral said before hanging up the receiver.

Yes, the brat will make a fine young officer, just like his father.  Soon both to be in a watery tomb.

 

*************************************************

 

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD

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The Captain prepared his ships to do battle in an unorthodox fashion.  While his gunboats formed a full coil, The Captain had each ship commander come aboard so that he could go over his plan with them in detail.  Standing tall above them, the commanders looked at him with a new kind of awe.  He had taken them this far with great success, and they knew that they were alive after traveling so far because of his impeccable planning.  The Captain, for his part, did not make a show of it but he could see that they listened to his words with confidence.  That is good.  Such attitudes are contagious and will give the men more drive with which to fight, even though the odds are firmly against us.

"So you see that the Onhohniks will be useless in these confined waters, but their guns are still better even than those of the gunboats, and if they are beached here..." The Captain pointed at the positions marked on his personal map, "...here, and here, then they will be unsinkable gun emplacements and will be able to enfilade the enemy as he approaches from the east."  The commanders saw the reasoning in the plan and said nothing, but took the plan in and made their own notes.  Perfectionist Captain Fors was known as, but now they were beginning to understand how he was also known to be unorthodox.  Learning had occurred.  Studying the faces of the officers under his command, The Captain judged that time enough had passed for them to be familiar with the battle strategy.  "Are there any questions?"  The Captain asked.  Silence, for a few moments, and then one brave soul asked: "Sir do you believe our escape plan will actually succeed, if it comes to that?"  The various officers looked away and avoided The Captain's gaze, but he did not admonish the man.  "I believe in Estrek, Senior Lieutenant Mirza, and I believe in all of the men under my command.  Your duty after repelling the enemy's attack is to survive and make it home.  Should I fall this day, consider that my final order.  Also, remind your crews that they need to keep their coats at hand.  Now, to your ships men.”

Edited by Bolo_MkXX_Tremendous_DMD

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Crews stood by their guns, their counterpart near at hand.  The hour of the attack was unknowable, but the men of Estrek were prepared for it in any case.  The Captain gave the order to stand to 50% after sundown, and then allowed standard rest for the hours of complete darkness.

His battlefield had been prepared.  The rocketships were emplaced on the western bank for the eastern end was too rocky.  An attack from the easy would be subjected to long range fire and the northern approach could be covered in an emergency.  The Oberland torpedoboats liked to fight in narrow passages, so the Dertzkis would delay and draw them out into the open.  The Estrekian ships could fight well at close range, but it was better with room to maneuver.

The crews stood to an hour before first light, which was well; the Oberland river division appeared with the sun.  As expected, they came from the east.  The morning sun would be at their backs, giving the advantage to their gunners.  The stationary guns of the beached rocketships had that area well covered in advance, however.  The opening of salvoes was simultaneous, and both small fleets began the battle in earnest.  The noise of the river and its falls were soon lost amidst the barrage of gunfire on the small lake.  Damage assessments were not given or were almost ignored in the hectic race to keep the guns firing at maximum speed.  The grounded Onhohniks received their share of the shells, but they held firm on the shore.

The V-25s began to show their damage, and several recalled to the east or became adrift, their torpedo runs aborted.  There were too many though.  A second wave of those swift torpedoboats came forward, and that was when The Captain saw it:  the enemy brought their big guns with them.  A shallow draft battleship, flanked by two gunships.  Bristling with rifled cannon, the gunships on either side cleared the area around it as the RiverBattleship pressed onward.  The massive guns turned as one to rest their sights on the farthest north Onhohnik.  The large caliber guns gave their report and the ship was blown apart.  Sand, ship parts, and crewmen were blown high into the sky.  The Captain gave the order for the remaining Onhohnik crews to set charges on the engines and to abandon ship.  His remaining Dertzkis would make a final rush into the jaws of the enemy.

There is a saying in Estrek - 'To kill a bear, you must stab him in the heart.'  The crews steeled themselves for the end as they turned from towards the enemy at flank speed.  The Captain was in the lead ship, at the bridge.  He gave the command to set torpedo charges to point blank range, crossed his arms behind his back, and stood at the bridge.  The Battleship guns reported again and zoomed over his head, striking into the bridge of the ship immediately to stern.  The Captain did not need to be told that it was destroyed in the water.  The two escorts moved to cut off his attack but by the time they began to maneuver, it was too late - the last two Dertzkis were between the gunships and their master.  Briefly, the fire stopped, as the Oberlanders feared shooting their comrades.  Eventually desperation took hold and the gunfire began again, but it was too late.  The ten torpedo launchers of the two ships were in action and the RiverBattleship was perforated all along its massive hulk.  The explosions were very loud at this close range, but the groaning of the ship was what was most striking.

Like a great, dying river beast, the Riverbattleship began to list, wounded and screaming as metal ground against metal.  Finally a massive crack and an explosion gave a final report, as explosions on board found their way to the ammunition stores.  The Oberland gunships began to peel off.  Smoke covered the water all around the scene of the battle, and Oberland navymen looked in vain for the last two boats of Estrek.  Debris flew into the air and landed across the lake.  The fore end of the Riverbattleship finally broke loose of the rear, and the whole mass was now at the mercy of the river.  Oberland soldiers on the shore looked on in horror as one of its river defenders drifted south on the lake, scraping the rocks the final hundred meters before going over the Dragon Falls.  What seemed like minutes later, the sound of its massive hulk could be heard striking the rocks, more than a kilometer below.

The Captain and his men were not to bear witness to their kill - he had used the obscuring smoke of the wreck to drive the last two ships in his command to the eastern shore, near the mouth of the river to the east.  He had bought a path of escape, but it was still a deadly one.  He knew that most of the men on the western shore would end up in a prison camp in Oberland, but they would still live.  His own men would have to traverse down the mountain and into the Great Forest.  "All hands brace for impact," the Captain said as his ships prepared to run aground.  Brace the men did, and better for them, as the Dertzkis came to a sudden halt upon the shoals on the southeastern end of the lake.  Charges were laid and the crews escaped - now less than forty  men.  They were a fleet without a ship, and The Captain was not yet dead.  He would lead them into the Great Forest and home.

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Alpha Tester
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The descent began almost at once.  There were no preparations to speak of.  It was unlikely that the Oberland ground forces would have the men to spare for a mopping up operation, but the river fleet would certainly want its revenge.  The Captain was loathe to dispatch his wounded after a string of successes and faithful service, but far better to die on the bank of the river than to languish in a prison camp until death.  The survivors numbered fifty one.  Fifty one men to make a journey that they had not trained for, across a hundred miles of unclaimed wilderness at least.  The Captain had an above average idea of the geography of the Great Forest, but this was still a new challenge for him.  

Deck ropes were salvaged before the survivors fled, lest they be gunned down before their first obstacle.  Fortunately, any sailor would be good at tying knots.  Even without a mountaineer's knowledge, the ropes would serve their purpose for descent.  A sturdy tree was tested and selected, and the ropes were tied end to end with a fisher's knot.  The ropes were let down on both sides of the tree.  A lean plainsman was chosen as the first man to descent.  Using his belt as a makeshift harness, the plainsman descended the twin ropes hand over hand past to the first outcropping of rock.  The Captain relayed in improvised sign language to test the ground, and the brave sailor complied.  Looking for purchase in the rocks below

the plainsman found a fissure in the rock wall and drifted away from the outcropping, inching his way down until he came within twenty feet of the ground.  The rope saved him more than once.  The side of the cliff was course and it would have been easy for an expert climber, but it was slick due to the spray of the falling water.

Now all at the top of the cliff felt relief as the first man made his way across the boulders at the base of the hill.  They would have given encouragement and cheers if not for the threat of an enemy shore party coming behind them.  The Captain wasted no time.  The man at the bottom secured the rope and held it tight for his comrades.  One by one the men all descended the cliff face, many of them terrified, but having no other choice but to face their fear.  Fortunately, all made a safe descent.  Some shook out their arms after the climb down, having exhausted their strength in fearful death grips on the rope.  The Captain ordered the rope to be pulled by one end until the knot came down, where it was untied and the entire rope retrieved.  This the men would coil and carry amongst them.  It could be useful later.

The wreck of the Oberland RiverBattleship was clearly seen under the falling waters of Dragon Falls: a permanent fixture along with the jagged rocks.  There were no survivors.  Allaying his own curiosity, The Captain ordered his men to straighten their gear and to prepare for the long march ahead.  The forest was close but it was not yet dense.  The Captain know that would change.  The sun was now well past its zenith and he would get his surviving crew deeper inland before allowing them to rest.  Shouldering their weapons and tools - there were not enough weapons for all - the crew followed The Captain’s directions to the Southeast.  The danger of the Oberland army was behind them.  Now The Great Forest was their adversary.

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