as the vessel's ram drove at full speed into the hull of the warship next to it—aimed with an accuracy no deliberate skill could have equaled. He was flung high by the impact, an instant before the steel tip of the ram gashed open the steamer's boiler. Beams, bodies and pieces of machinery fountained skyward.
The other ship hit by plunging fire had been struck amidships; its paddles froze in their boxes as the boiler rang and flexed and cracked along a rivet-line. Superheated steam flooded the tween-decks spaces, scalding men like lobsters in a pot. Water from the boiler shell cascaded down onto the glowing-hot coal fires in the brick furnaces beneath. It exploded into steam. That and the sudden flexing as ceramic shed heat into the water ripped the iron frames of the firebrick ovens apart like the bursting charge of a howitzer shell, sending them into the backs of the screaming black gang as they ran for the ladders. It also ripped ten meters of hull planking loose from the composite teak-and-iron frame of the warship; the vessel stopped dead in the water, heeled, and began to sink level as seawater gurgled into the engine room.
The cannon began to fire again, more slowly this time, and a little raggedly with the different reloading speeds of their crews. Another ship was struck, this time twice by rounds that crashed straight through the decking and deflected off major timbers to punch out through the hull below the waterline.
One of the warships turned back; the captain reversed one paddle-wheel and kept the other at full ahead, and the vessel spun about in almost its own length. The lead ram plunged forward into the midst of the Brigade ships. They were backing their sails to try and steer clear of it, but the Civil Government warship pirouetted with the same swift-turning grace that its sister had shown in fleeing. Cannon spoke from the bow as it lunged for the flank of a transport, and canister chopped the Brigaderos warriors along the near rail into a thrashing chaos. Then the whole transport surged away as the steel beak slammed home below the waterline.
Just before it struck, the Civil Government ram had backed its paddles, trying to pull the beak free. This time the heavy sailing transport rocked back down too quickly, and its weight gripped the steel of the underwater ram, pushing the warship's bow down until water swirled across its decks. Brigade marksmen picked themselves up and crowded to the rail, or swarmed into the rigging to sweep the steamer's decks.
Beyond, the rest of the relief force sailed forward to anchor under the fort's walls, protected by its guns, and men and supplies began to swarm ashore.
observe, Center said, and the scene changed:
—to night. Dark, with both moons down and only the stars lighting the advancing men. They moved silently up the long slope toward the landward defences of Fort Wager, carrying dozens of long scaling ladders and knotted ropes with iron grapnel hooks. Silent save for the click of equipment and breathing, and the crunch of hobnailed boots on the coarse gravel soil beneath them.
Arc lights lit along the parapet with a popping crackle and showers of sparks. Mirrors behind them reflected the light into stabbing blue-white beams that paralyzed the thousands of advancing troops as thoroughly as the carbide lanterns hunters might use to jacklight a hadrosauroid. Less than a second later, nearly a hundred cannon fired at once, from the main fort wall, from the bastions at the angles and from the triangular ravelins flung out before the works. Many of the guns were of eight-inch bore, and they were firing case-shot, thin tin sheets full of lead musket balls. Multiple overlapping bursts covered every centimeter of the approaches, and most of the Civil Government troops vanished like hay struck by a scythe-blade. . . .
* * *
"We'll deal with the fortress when we come to it," Raj