Chapter 23: The Battle of Aberdeen
Jack leaned his full weight against the railing of the Destiny, looking out to port as the large mass that was Occitania passed them by. The air that evening was cold and brisk, and in some portions of Occitania, he could see snow on the ground already. It had been a long time since he'd seen the continent this close, the object of so much action and animosity over the last year. Now that he was back in Java, he had his next chance to deal them a bloody nose, and hopefully, bring this war to a speedy conclusion.
He turned to look in the direction of the bow, only catching the slightest hint of Admiral Reynolds' force in front of him, his force leading the way to Aberdeen as they made their way along the channel between the two countries.
What should have been a simple task was complicated by several factors, many of them out of his control. Beyond the obvious issue with Galicia, the biggest item causing him frustration was the change of heart in Admiral Bancroft. For years, Jack had known him as the kindly mentor and father figure—the heart and brains of the Javan Navy. Going back to their first interaction at the Academy, Bancroft had always provided the kind of guidance that he needed, whether it was patient or jarring. In times of adversity, it was the one constant he could expect from the older man, and Jack knew the feelings of goodwill were reciprocal.
What a difference a year made.
Despite the ever cordial nature of the admiral's outward persona, this past visit had gone far from Jack's liking. There was a coldness growing in the man, an ever-deepening sense of power lust that had eroded his personality and replaced it with something foreign. Dinner with Bancroft had been an increasingly-bleak affair, punctuated by a bizarre request of loyalty that could only hint at grand and vile designs.
Somewhere in Bancroft's head, something was off. What terrified Jack the most about it was that the man was in overall command of what was to become the largest naval battle in Javan history, one where the wrong order could send all of them to their deaths. It scarcely put him in a good frame of mind as they drifted steadily closer to Aberdeen, and Jack found himself studying the minute details of his part of the plan to make sure he was fully-prepared.
With how his initial reunion with Bancroft had been, he couldn't help but think of Commodore Lucas' warning when Jack was still back in Quiller's Cove. The one about Henrik being a good officer, and the idea that there was more to the story beyond a simple betrayal. Jack had agreed to keep his ears open to the matter while he was home, never suspecting there to be any truth to the statement.
Bancroft's recent actions and statements now put a grain of doubt in his head. Suddenly, Lucas' request didn't seem so far-fetched. It made even more sense when he thought that if he didn't succeed in the next battle, he'd be banned from Java for life.
Needless to say, his heart was heavy as he left the port of Lockhaven and slipped into the narrow channel. Even his women couldn't completely alleviate the growing tensions on his mind, but they surely tried their hardest to succeed at doing just that. At this very moment, Jack had to question whether he had any fluids remaining in his body, or if they had all been sucked out by Abigail's pouty lips or Kat's inviting pussy.
He knew he wouldn't be fully at ease until he figured out what life looked like on the other side of Aberdeen.
That is, if he didn't die in the process.
As he remained stuck in thought, he eventually noticed a launch boat making its way closer to the Destiny. Once it was close enough, he could see Luke Ravencross was the only occupant, and the commander jumped out as soon as the boat was raised high enough to the deck. To his credit, he knew Jack well enough to know there was a lot on his mind right now, and he called it from the start.
"Well, aren't you one moody looking officer?" teased Luke as he stopped right beside him. He mimicked Jack's position, leaning against the railing as they both looked over to Occitania. "No need to be upset, we'll have a battle in a couple more days."
Jack started to laugh. Things would always seem simple to Luke, who mostly only thought in terms of naval battles. One more battle here or there and then it was off to the next one. He knew the man to be deeper than he let on, but when you just looked at the surface, Luke could be easy to misconstrue as being single-minded.
"I think the battle might be the easy part," said Jack with a chuckle. "Go in there, shoot at everyone we can and then get out while still remaining afloat. Not much difficulty to that."
"Then what's got you with such a long horse face right now? I haven't seen one like that since I was last at my dopey cousin's farm," said Luke.
"Just the usual," muttered Jack, staying brief on purpose. Luke was one of the few close contacts who didn't know about Galicia. He did, however, know about Bancroft, and any topic of this magnitude was fair game and safe waters for Jack.
"Still thinking about Bancroft, aren't you?"
Jack nodded. He'd broached the subject with him the day they left Lockhaven.
"Don't you think he might've been exaggerating? Surely you don't think that if we lose you can't go back home, right?"
Jack gave him a pointed look. "Bancroft isn't one to mince words. I have to believe that he meant what he said. He generally doesn't like when people try to read between the lines."
"What would you do if that was the case?"
Luke looked at him. "Say we lost this next fight. Where would you go?"
Jack took a deep breath. The actual destination was obvious, but it was the journey there that was troublesome. "Back to the West, no doubt," he said after a long sigh. "I'm even thinking about holding the Carinthian and Picard vessels out of the battle as an insurance policy."
"In case we lose and you need transit back?"
"Not a bad idea, but you have to consider one thing, Jack."
Jack met Luke's eyes as the man finally cracked a smile.
"We're not liable to lose at Aberdeen, now are we?" asked Luke.
Jack chuckled. "I sure hope you're right. We should have enough tricks up our sleeves between us that we can hope to get the better of the Occies. Obviously, we won't be able to rely fully on surprise, but in that case, we'll have to let tactics carry the day."
"Speaking of surprise, this channel has been awfully quiet as of late," noted Luke. "Aren't we close to the spot where the first invasion took place?"
Jack pointed to the front of the ship. "We're a few miles away actually. We need to keep wide clearance around the site when we go through." Jake looked back at Luke. "The channel is so shallow that we might hit one of the sunken transport ships if we get too close.
Luke let out a low whistle. "Poor bastards. They should've known better to attempt that with so little naval support."
"They still had the Charles IX," added Jack. "I don't know of any more deadly battleship afloat."
"Not us though," scoffed Luke. "We would've kicked that Occie ass like we've been doing."
"True," said Jack with a subtle laugh. "Let's hope that with all of us together for this upcoming battle, it'll make the difference."
"I know it will, Jack. I'm a believer in it," said Luke. "I also think they'll panic once they see those airplanes coming at them."
"The airplanes are only half the equation," added Jack with a steely look. "I plan to use everything we've gained from our last mission. We have to, being outnumbered won't afford us the chance to take it easy on them."
"Speaking of which, you never did tell me what Bancroft thought of the airplanes," said Luke. "I'm almost surprised he didn't make you give him one on the spot."
Jack let out a long sigh. "I don't think he believed me when I told him about it. I think he's under the impression it's still some kind of glider like what we had already. He wasn't that impressed and didn't want a demonstration."
Luke shrugged. "Seems a little stupid if you ask me."
Jack smirked. "I guess we just have to show him their worth in battle."
"That is true. When are the rest of the admirals getting to Aberdeen?"
Jack looked at his watch. "From what I heard, the train should be on the way there right now. Admirals McKenzie and Kuntz should already be there. Once Bancroft gets there tonight, we'll be ready to get this kicked off the day after tomorrow."
"Good. There's no sense in delaying the inevitable. Let's get this in gear quickly," said Luke with a grin. "I have another naval cross to win!"
The two men continued to talk for another forty-five minutes until the sun started to set. It would be a tense evening, and the lookouts would be on their guard for any Occitanian activity. As Luke set out to return to the Valiant, Jack made his way to his own quarters after a light dinner to prepare for bed.
As always, Kat and Abigail had beaten him to the punch. It was Abigail's night away from the regular duties, and she could already be found in bed trying to catch up on her rest. Her long, dark hair was bunched up near her pillow and already her arm could be found draped over one of Kat's legs, as the other woman sat upright reading a book.
That had been a recent development. Jack had found out that Kat had been quite the reader back in Galicia before she was deposed, losing her entire library in the process to her cousin. After all the time spent on the lookout for him, she didn't have much time for the activity and it languished for several years. It was most notable during the transit back to Java, when she found herself quite bored after so long at sea.
Once they arrived in Lockhaven though, Abigail took her into the city to find some books to make up for all the boredom, and she now had a healthy stack in the corner of the room to go over. Anymore, it was hard to find her without one in hand, especially considering her liking for Javan works.
Seeing that Abigail was sleeping, Jack shut the door as quietly as he could, finding Kat's blue eyes on him instantly. "Is she out?" he whispered.
Kat looked down at her and then back to Jack. "Just about," she said softly. "Poor thing fell right in bed when she got here but she's been struggling to get a deeper sleep. I think she's just about out now."
Jack nodded and started to get undressed. Since the nights were starting to get cold again, he would usually have slept in something much more insulated, his long underwear usually doing the trick. However, sharing a bed with one woman can often provide enough heat to make that unnecessary and when you added in a second, it could become a downright sauna.
Still, the air alone could be cold, so after taking off the majority of his clothes, he quickly crossed the room to slip in on the other side of Kat, quickly draping his arm over her other leg.
She made a soft noise of approval as she set her book aside. "You're in bed early tonight. I rather like this. You don't usually turn the light off until well into the night."
"Just tired," he answered, punctuating the statement with a yawn. "I figured some sleep might help my active brain to settle down."
"Don't you know that's not how that works," she said with a giggle. "That just means you're going to lay here awake the entire time while you mull over whatever's on your mind."
Jack placed his head on her leg. "I was hoping I might find an exception tonight."
"Oh, I doubt that. But if you'd like to be distracted, perhaps you'd like to discuss this fine book with me right now?" Kat waved a copy of a Javan classic, one that Jack recognized from his schooling years.
"Pass on that," he said, closing his eyes as he made himself comfortable. "Besides, I wouldn't want to wake Abigail."
"I'm already awake," murmured Abigail, all the while keeping her eyes closed too. She pressed in closer to Kat's leg after taking a deep breath. "You both talk too loud, and Jack you shook the bed when you got in."
"Sorry," he answered quickly. "We'll keep it down."
"Unless you intend to make it worth my while?" Abigail's eyes popped open, and she arched her eyebrow suggestively.
Jack considered it for half a moment, ultimately shaking his head. He just wasn't in the mood with all that had been going on, and sex was something he liked to devote full attention to.
Luckily for him, the two women seemed to be in a similar state of mind.
"I'm just teasing, Jack," said Abigail as she closed her eyes and snuggled in. "I really need to get some sleep, but perhaps tomorrow will be better for all of us."
"Well, if you two are going to bed, then so am I," said Kat as she slid down between the other two, finding herself the filling of the sandwich instead of the bread. A few moments later, Abigail's soft breathing could be heard, a sure sign that she'd fallen asleep while Jack tried his damnedest to join her. After a short while, his eyes popped back open, and he found himself looking back into Kat's blue ones.
"Bancroft?" she whispered softly, already knowing the topic on his mind. Despite not having met him yet even with the order to bring back a head of state, Kat had heard of all his troubles with his superior officer.
Jack nodded while remaining silent.
Her hand crept across to his face and silently stroked his cheek. "It'll get better," she whispered.
Jack wished that he believed her.
The next day, Jack was no more worse for wear than he'd been since the mission started. The narrow waters of the channel had finally opened up somewhat, and the task force lost sight of the mass of land to the north as they hugged the coast on their journey east.
Sleep hadn't come easily the night before, and it was a ragged version of himself that pushed out of bed earlier that morning. Still, Jack had things to do to ensure the success of the mission. And the one that took the most priority today was meeting with the western commanders of his task force.
The two vessels—the Carinthian frigate and the Picard destroyer—were the only foreign components of his command, older ships that were a generation behind their Javan counterparts in just about every metric. There was no greater sign of this gulf between them than the great billows of black smoke that marked their location near the rear of the task force. Their engines still used coal, and for that reason, they burned much dirtier than the Polonium engines of the rest of the Javan ships.
It also brought up an interesting question that would need to be solved before battle commenced.
"Jack, good to see you," exclaimed Lt. Commander Horatio Rivas, the commander of the Carinthian frigate Sea Serpent. Horatio was a short man, barely coming up to Jack's shoulders, and he was so thin that Jack estimated he couldn't have been more than a hundred and fifty pounds all together. Yet Horatio was a good man with a strategic mind, and he'd been good company on the trip back to Java.
"And you, Horatio," said Jack as they shook hands. "How are you liking this part of the world?"
Horatio grinned. "I liked seeing your city Lockhaven the best. I still felt like I took a trip into the future. Someday soon, I'd like to spend more time in that city."
"Hopefully you'll get the chance. If we win," added Jack.
"Aye, if we win," confirmed the Carinthian commander.
Horatio wasn't alone, and soon Jack noticed the commander of the Picard destroyer Ballard appearing beside his colleague. Lt. Commander Owen McGloin was in charge of the ship, a wily commander like only destroyer captains could be. He was a typical Picard in appearance with his dark red hair, and he had the smallest boil on his jaw, a distinguishable trait that was often the first thing noticed about the man.
"I'll tell you what, Jack," said Owen as he moved to Horatio's side. "We're spoiling for a fight. I hope we're not too far away from finding this enemy you've been promising us."
Jack grinned and pointed slightly to the south. "Tomorrow you'll get your wish. The bulk of the Occitanian navy is just a day away in that direction. A bigger fleet you've probably never seen before."
"I don't know," said Owen as he elbowed Horatio in the stomach. "I've seen a big Swabian task force before. Lots of battleships there too."
Jack smirked. "Tomorrow, we might see as many as thirty of them."
"Good," replied Owen. "Plenty of targets for my torpedoes then."
Jack started to chuckle. "That's one thing that I wanted to discuss with both of you for tomorrow. One thing has been on my mind, and I think it's something we can't ignore."
Horatio made a confused face. "And what's that, Jack?"
Jack gestured for both men to turn around to look at the smoke on the horizon. "Your smoke can be seen for miles and miles."
Horatio grimaced. "Not much we can do about that. Unless you can outfit our engines overnight."
"That I can't do," said Jack. "But it's a problem of visibility. You'll stick out like a sore thumb, and the worst part about that is that you'll give away the position of the rest of the task force in doing so. Now, we don't know how much surprise we'll have tomorrow, but I'm not one to start taking chances now. So we have to figure out what to do with you."
Both men made disappointed faces, likely already knowing what Jack was going to ask of them. He couldn't blame them for the dashed hopes because it also meant a degree of separation between them and the rest of the ships.
"Do you need us to hang back then?" asked Owen with some reservation. "I highly doubt you'll want us leading the charge."
"It's going to have to work that way," said Jack with a reluctant nod. "At least until the battle commences but I can't have you giving away our position. There's too much at stake."
"I guess there's no way we might be able to convince you to try a night attack?" offered Horatio with an eager grin. "You can't see the smoke at night."
Jack started to chuckle. "That you can't, but the rest of us have to attack during the day. I'm afraid it won't work. My goal will be to have you in our rear, and ready to rendezvous with the rest of us once we start to pull back from Aberdeen. We should have a chunk of the Occitanian fleet on our heels, with our own ships right behind them, crushing them between two forces. Once that happens, I'll be more than happy to get you two involved and there should be plenty of targets by that point."
If Jack was being honest with himself, it was also part of his insurance policy. By having the two hang back from the rest of the force, it gave them the best chance of survival. If something went wrong tomorrow and the Javans were defeated, he would need the ships to carry him back across the ocean.
Part of him didn't want to think about all the implications of what could happen in that event, but it was an option he had to consider now with Bancroft's recent actions.
"Hang out in the back and wait for all the scraps?" scoffed Owen playfully. "I was hoping for more of a fight than that, Jack!"
"We're bound to have a lot of fights in front of us," said Jack with a grin. "I just want to be smart about your ships and make the best use of secrecy while we can."
"No, it makes sense, Jack," said Horatio before gesturing to himself and Owen. "In fact, we've already been talking about it on the trip over. It's not exactly a secret that we're not the most inconspicuous of vessels."
Jack nodded. "I wouldn't dream of asking you both to cross the ocean just to sit out the battle, but this way I think we'll get the maximum use out of your ships while coordinating movements with the rest of us."
"You know, Jack, you do raise a good question," started Horatio as he began to rub his chin. "You said you expect the enemy to have over thirty battleships tomorrow."