Friday, December 30, 2011

Battle over Barsoom

by Phil Gardocki

This is a fictionalization of a game that was played at Cold Wars. The encounter is about a two dozen steam powered space ships fighting it out in the skies of Mars. The rules set used was “Fleet Battles by Gaslight”, written and run by Christopher Palmer. The game takes place in the Victorian era and assumes mankind has discovered space travel, but little else, about 80 years early. I enjoyed the game very much, and wrote this story to describe the events, throwing Burroughs Martians and as many historical peers as possible into the mix.

Battle over Barsoom

“This is intolerable,” thought Tars Tarkos, Prince Heir of Thark, as he shifted his position from left to right to compensate for the rolling deck of ship beneath his feet. The yacht, Mi’Mosa rolled in the gentle Barsoomian breeze. “We could have been there in half the time it takes for the Pink Skins to make this trip.” Tars stopped his musings to observe the short Pink Skins that were attempting to interact with their counterparts in the royal staff. Translators, both Thark, and Pink Skin, were desperately trying to keep up with the conversations. But apparently there was an addition complication, that these Pink Skins, spoke Deutsche, not the English that some Tharks had grown accustom to. When we get to the conference, there will be more discussions, concessions, and then a treaty that would turn some of the Pink Skins against the others, and thus preserve Barsoom for Thark, and so avoid a slow death by exploitation.

“I must stop thinking of them as Pink Skins, I am a Prince, and must set the proper example. They are our allies, these Deutsche, I must not forget that.”
The chancellor, Kal Kardos, was very firm on this. Allies are not subordinates, but equals. Tars, of course, did not accept this. Equals? Ha! He derided the chancellor for his obvious stupidity. But this attitude made his father, the King, livid, and in his royal chambers, corrected Tars for a very long time.

He looked at the trailing ships out the right hand window. They were crude, with their seams were bolted together, and parts of them were made out of some kind of plant material grown on Earth. He counted six ships out this window, and knew there were three more escorting him on the other side. They were ugly, with thick smoke belching from their interior, and they were prone to break downs. It seems we get started just in time to stop again.

His father and the chancellor were right though. While our ships are superior in every way, they are few in number. Each one is now precious. The Earthling ships were stinking, slow, and unreliable. But each year there are more of them. While we have forgotten how to make ours. How could we have forgot?  The answer, of course was that our ancestors built too many and too well. The ships didn’t need maintenance, and rarely required replacement. And after several generations, we only knew how to operate them.

He observed some frantic activity on the Earth cruiser he now knew as the Koln. His eyes then darted to the two nearby Deutsche boats and noted what could only be sudden preparations.

He took two steps forward, to the front viewing ports, and started to read the flashing lights emanating from the Thark Destroyer Ja’ Kal. It had been years since his ship training, and his skills at reading the signal lights were not as fast as the ship’s crew, but he wouldn’t need to wait to be told that something was very wrong.

“This is intolerable,” thought Admiral von Tirpitz as he was piped on deck of his flagship, the Dreadnought Blucher, “Every ship has had some kind of breakdown on this short trip, except for those damnable Martians.” He did not even have the luxury to exempt the Blucher from the list.

For the Blucher was the latest in German engineering, and the pride of the German Fleet. Even though the Blucher was newly arrived on Mars, it had spent a year working up and training before that point, and the crew was acting competently. But despite that workup period and the relative rest of the transit to Mars, minor problems built up and even the Blucher had an engineering casualty that slowed this fleet to a crawl for a short period of time.

Allied with the natives. Everywhere we go it is the same. The English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, even the Italians, wherever the Germans went to set up legitimate business interests, the other European powers were there first, sometimes by centuries. And so, our interests get relegated to back water operations. The English get Hong Kong, and we get Koto Baru. They get the horn of Africa, and we get east Africa. They get the control points, and we have to make deals with disenfranchised natives.

But on Mars, at least, the English only have a short lead. Space travel is only ten years old. But finding out that even the Americans were already here was a surprise that von Bismarck had not warned him about before departure.

He had to admit, that despite the ugly yellow paint they used, the Martian ships were beautiful. How they were formed was beyond his comprehension. It was almost as if they were welded out of prefabricated parts instead of riveted metal and nailed wood. And whatever they fed their boilers, it made no smoke whatsoever, even their transports could take off at high speed from a standing stop. By the time von Tirpitz had a presence of mind to order the fire control optics to track the speed of the ship, it had already stopped, turned broadside, as if to say, “Are you coming, or what?”

He could hardly wait to get a tour of that warship. Given the seven-foot height of the natives, he won’t be banging his head in the corridors.

“Incoming message on semaphore Kaptain,” said the deck officer. “It’s from the Liepzeg.”

“Read it when it’s ready Lieutenant.” respond Kaptain Ludendorf.

Von Tirpitz, however, wasn’t dependent on the transcribed message, and he spelled out the message flags in his head.


Admiral von Tirpitz was issuing orders to the communications officer, before the dreadnought’s Kaptain had the message. “Order the fleet to turn 20 degrees port. Send the cruisers forward. Kaptain Ludendorf, turn broadside and unmask our batteries. If this is a fight, I would prefer to take advantage of our superior gunnery at long range.”

There was only a pause before Ludendorf responded. “Petty Officer of the watch, pass the announcement for battle stations to all compartments.” And to the helmsman, “Helmsman, turn twenty degrees port, half flank speed. Stoke up the boilers.”

With basic orders given, there was little else to do. The noise of the bells rang through the ship. But his thought was of the Martians. There was an understanding, that they would run at best speed. But, they had a nobility problem. To run was not in their nature. And with translators working first from Martian, to English, and then German, who knows what the Martians would do.

“This is intolerable,” thought Commodore Dewey. He was on the outer Flag Bridge of the USS Texas, and staring through his telescope at the approaching Martian and German task forces. I do not believe that President Harrison sent me here to bushwhack some German task force and their native followers. His orders were clear though, to cooperate with our British cousins, and to further American commerce into space. This was beginning to look like furthering British commerce, and the only reason he was here was because some of the green natives raided and massacred an American gold mining outpost.

Even that was a little fishy. He saw the Martian bodies at the outpost, but the wounds of the bodies of the miners looked more like bayonet wounds, rather than sword cuts.

If all this gets to the press, President Harrison won’t have a second term. But, it wasn’t like he got a majority of the votes the first time either.

“Well, now it is a tactical problem,” He thought, “All the Anglo American squadrons had the high sky advantage of about a mile, and, hello there, we have just been spotted.”

Message from the Ja’Kal, my Prince, said the Growl, while handing the foil to Tars. The Growl then backed away, and awaited whatever orders the Prince would have. Tars scanned the message, and picked up the nuances that he missed while trying to read the lights himself. It was short and to the point. At least 12 ships were spotted, converging from many vectors. He was going to go hunting, and recommends the Prince be right behind him.

“Ship Commander,” Tars said with a calmness he didn’t feel, “Go for maximum altitude, signal the other yacht also. We probably will be going at high speed.” And in a voice of authority for the immediate crew, “Lets show our Pink Skinned friends what we can do.” There was a pause and small cheer, which was a kind of a disappointment, but then, this ship was not full of warriors, but of all the functionaries necessary to make a government work.

Within seconds, the Destroyer Ja’Kal, began its ascent, but it took almost a minute for the Yacht La Tar and even longer for the Dora Dor to follow. Feeling his weight almost double was a bit of a strain. He definitely needed to go hunting more, he was far past getting soft, he was soft. Tars found himself wishing he could take the place of his Cousin, Tal Tejak, who, as Ship Commander of the destroyer he must now follow, was about to earn a lot of glory this day.

“The Martian Ships are rising at a rate of .6 G, Herr Admiral, and last tracked moving at 36 knots (M),” reported Kaptain Ludendorf to von Tirpitz.

“So precise! Are we still tracking them with the fire control rangefinder?”

“Yes, Mein Herr, as per your previous orders.”

Mentally sighing, but giving no outward expression, von Tirpitz ordered, “Kaptain, target your rangefinder one of the incoming ships per your own tactical judgment. We will need all the advantages that rangefinder will give to our guns.”

“At once, Admiral.”

Rising at point 6 G and 36 knots normalized for Martian planetary curvature. We have ships that can almost meet those specs, point 4 G, and 28 knots, but none of them are near the size of the Martian Warship. Was it the fuel, or the aerodynamics? Well, it was unimportant at this time. They were gaining altitude and running, and so he can concentrate on the fleet action at hand.
“The Zeppelin is responding sir,” reported a port side sailor. And the Koln is following the Martians.

“Very good,” responded the Admiral. Now we are in a bad situation. I have three ships escorting the Martians and six ships to take on twelve or more enemy ships. Of my two heavy ships, one is a Zeppelin, or rather, THE Zeppelin, which would be of limited use on Earth, but has much greater lift capacity and reliability here on Mars. As long as the enemy doesn’t have any of the new percussion shells, she should be nearly invulnerable, able to take many hits before deflating gently.
“Admiral, we can see flashes from the nearby incoming ships,” reported Kaptain Ludendorf.

“Fire at will, Kaptain.”

“Well, we surprised them all right, their formation is breaking up,” mused Commodore Dewey. “Half the Germans are going for altitude and speed, and the other half stopped and turned for battle. We have altitude, their forces are split, and have crossed their T as well.”
“Captain, target that strange looking ship heading for us.”

“Yes Commodore.”

Tars Tarkos could hear the heavy guns of the Destroyer, and was surprised to actually see the incoming shells from the enemy ships. They were that big. The Barsoom guns were small caliber, but high velocity, and were not visible to the eye. And, like so many things, have the secrets of their manufacture lost in antiquity. But these Earth weapons were huge, and loud, but slow, and the Pink Skins can make more of them. And they would get better.

“Dora Dor has lost vector!” shouted a lower level Growl.

And it was true. The yacht had all the signs of a power disruption, for without power, the ship’s stabilization was also compromised and began a random swaying that was visible to all the world.

“Order our ships to halt,” demanded Tars Tarkos. Warriors or no, this order was accepted by the crew immediately. This was a code of honor, you do not leave comrades behind.

As the communications were being sent to the Ja’ Kal, there was a sudden explosion forward of the yacht. Tars Tarkos’s nictitating membrane automatically covered his eyes, and for a moment, his only image, was that of a purple ship, with black flames emanating from all angles

It was an explosion unlike any, von Tirpitz, or any human, had ever seen. Instead of a fireball, debris, and smoke, it was multicolor shimmer, then lightning, then iridescent sparks descending to the ground.

“Mein Gott, that was awful.” murmured Kaptain Ludendorf, “Not even a chance to parachute.”Everyone was shocked at the first casualty. It was expected to be one of the first contact cruisers or destroyers, but not a capital ship like the Martian appeared to be.

“Kaptain, can anyone see the Prince’s Yacht? And where is the Koln, and her escorts?”
“There!” pointed a seamen.

And indeed there they were. The two yachts were up very high, with the Koln and the two patrol boats nearby. But, they were not moving.

“Scheis, why are they just sitting there?” said Kaptain Ludendorf.

Von Tirpitz thought on this for a few seconds. And remembered his correspondence with von Clauswitz. “It doesn’t matter why, Kaptain. The only way we can help them now is to draw attention away from them by shooting down enemy ships.”

“Waa HOO,” shouted Commodore Dewey, “It was big, it was bad, and now it’s GONE!!!”

Captain Springer chimed in, “If I had a gun I’d notch it, but how do you notch an 8 inch howitzer?”

Dewey replied, “You get a can of ugly yellow paint and paint that ship on the side of your turret, and if anyone gives you a problem, I’ll back you all the way to the Admiralty!”

Shells were flying fast all around. Several ships were emanating smoke from every porthole and others were sinking slowly from engineering casualties. But no shells touched the yachts. Tars had to wonder at his allies, they were as good as their bond. Two tiny boats were between his motionless ship and the huge one that destroyed the Ja’Kal. One had taken a hit and was not in control anymore. The larger one was pummeling a small English ship into scrap.

“We have message from Dora Dor, she is ready to move.”
“Good, make ready to leave, signal the Dora Dor to keep up as best she can.” Ordered the Prince. It may be gauling, but that was his mission. When he is gone, his allies should no longer be in jeopardy.

“Ship Commander, What is the fastest speed this yacht has ever gone?”
The Ship Commander actually smiled, “Without royalty on board, or belching Pink Skin contraptions about, 65 statii.”

Tars struck a casual pose with three of his arms, but the fourth, was behind his back, and grabbed a convenient metal handle, very tightly.

“I would like to see this ship do 65 statii, Ship Commander.”

Commodore Dewey was beginning to get frustrated. It seemed that the explosion of the Martian Battleship was more accident than good shooting. Two German boats were screening the transports with surprising efficiency, and while one was hit a few times, it was still in play, and firing back. His squadron, and the British squadron had all the advantages, but nothing was being accomplished.

“Explosion, Starboard bow,” reported a lookout.“Ours, or theirs?” demanded the Commodore.
“I think it was British, Commodore, but I don’t know which one.”

Dewey shifted is telescope back onto the transports. “It doesn’t matter.” Keep firing on the transports.”  Wait a minute. That transport was moving, and diving.  “Captain, Springer, did we hit it?”

But even before the Captain answered, the Commodore had his answer, as the second transport adopted a nearly identical movement profile.

“Congratulations Kaptain, that was a British Capital ship,” announced von Tirpitz. And to the cheering crew he ordered, “There are more enemy ships out there, and they are all trying to kill us. Let’s kill them first, before we celebrate.”

In the turrets of the Texas, the effort of retraining the guns was exhausting. This ship was originally designed to fight at sea, which was relatively flat, and a relatively unmoving surface. Sky ships were much faster and harder to hit. At sea, you pointed the gun, and waited until the ship rolled to the correct angle and you fired. There was no waiting here, the turrets constantly needed to be adjusted. Finally, with the German patrol boats out of the way and the guns finally had a clean shot on the transports, when, they just dropped out of the sky.
The turret commander was yelling into the voice tube. “You need to roll the ship more. No they are diving. I need 20 degrees of roll. Now! Well then, tell the Captain I can’t hit those targets!”The barbette gunners had no better time of it. Lighter and smaller, they covered the traverse range rate of the transports quite well, but had even less ability to adjust for the sudden drop in altitude.

“WeeeeHAYDHLOLLDLSLDKJ,” shouted the Prince at the top of his lungs. And if this was a break in decorum, he wasn’t alone. What Barsoomians that were still standing were shouting as well. There were no Pink Skins on their feet. They were a tangled mass of parts splayed and intermixed with Tharks that were also caught off guard at the sudden zero gravity and the acceleration that the Mi’Mosa was developing. The orange surface of Barsoom was growing at an alarming speed, but it was the ride of a lifetime.
The Ship Commander pulled back on the controls, and gravity was at first heavier, and then returned to normal, but the speed was only slightly changed. He turned with a loopy grin and lisped, “My Prince, I have failed you. We only achieved 63 statii in our descent.
“Perhaps it was a failure in the measurement equipment, I am sure it was 65,” replied Tars.

“Very well my Prince,” and the Ship Captain turned to guide his vessel through the Barsoomian wildlands.

Then an explosion rocked the yacht, almost throwing it into a red sand dune.

“Turn those guns around, fire the port barbette guns, drop altitude, they’re getting away!” shouted Commodore Dewey. It was the last order he ever shouted.
For the Zeppelin, was more than an experimental propulsion and lift system, but also had some of the new percussion explosive rounds that would be instant death to her gasbags. And one of them just hit the Texas’s number 4 barbette gunpowder magazine.

“Kaptain, you may secure from battle stations,” ordered von Tirpitz, “I do not think they are coming back. It was quite a day. Three British Capital ships destroyed, and at least 1 cruiser. Several ships were disabled, but recoverable on both sides. The only real loss was the Martian Dreadnought. Between the alliance with the Thark, and this skirmish, we have almost reached parity in forces. Chancellor von Bismarck was correct in his actions to deploy von Tirpitz’s squadron to Mars. Pity about the Martian ship though, he really wanted a tour of that ship.

Tars Tarkos, Prince of Thark, looked out upon the task force that again surrounded his yacht. “Allies,” He thought, “We may have made a good choice here. They were short, ugly, and slow, but had warrior spirit. They may have unreliable ships, but they can make more of them.”

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