The ship’s engines pulsed below, gently vibrating the handrail of the forward observation deck. Étienne Brisset stood by the rail, idly clasping it as he surveyed the dark wave crests many feet below. Lit dimly by the running lights of the frigate, he could see occasional flecks of white sea foam at their peaks. The scent of brine hung in his nostrils and the chill air condensed his breath, forming beads of moisture on his impressively waxed moustache. In front of him – and below – was the prow of the ship. Behind, looming out of the gloom, was the superstructure of the Triomphante. A few lights glimmered, outlining the snub noses of the anti-air batteries, nestled in amongst their sandbags and protected by thick plate steel. The long barrel of the frigate’s main gun squatted overhead, enormous mouth wide and black even in the darkness of this moonless night. He shivered despite the warmth of the greatcoat draped over his slight frame, and stamped his feet, attempting to restore some circulation to his numb toes. He had no idea what they were doing so far North, and the captain had hardly been forthcoming about their orders when he gave his customary address at the beginning of the voyage. Nobody else in the wardroom knew much, either. Everyone knew that they had steamed through la manche into the North Sea – leaving port quickly and quietly nearly a week ago, lights extinguished, engines thrumming - but their ultimate destination remained a closely-guarded secret. A sluggish wave struck the ship on her beam and she pitched underfoot, sending the ensign staggering slightly. He swore softly to himself, and clutched the rail a little tighter, gazing out across the gloomy sea.
Vasiliy could hardly believe his eyes. The snub nose of his skyship tilted as the Russian pilot slowly edged out of the clouds to confirm his initial suspicions. At first he was sure he was mistaken, but with every hundred metres or so he closed the distance, the outlines of the ship below became clearer and clearer. He wasn’t close enough to see their insignia yet, but he knew that the shape wasn’t Russian. A foreign warship, in Russian waters! He curled his lips in a mirthless smile.
“Well my friends, today you face the might of the White Air Army. I will teach you not to come snooping!”
Easing the yoke of his ship forward, Vasiliy rapidly closed on the vessel. It held its course, unaware of the threat now approaching it from the sky. Vasiliy was careful to approach from the rear of the frigate, gently jinking to throw off the aim of any anti-air gunners who might have him in their sights. He didn’t need to. No flak burst around him, no searchlights cut through the dark to tell him that he had been uncovered. It was almost as if everyone aboard was asleep. Quickly – very quickly now – he found himself skimming the wave tops. He squinted through his sights and readied the cannons. Just a few yards more, he told himself. Hold steady, don’t give them a chance. Three hundred metres. Two hundred metres. Now one hundred.
Étienne blinked, staring out into the all-consuming blackness. Was something moving out there? He quickly shielded his eyes with his hands, blocking out what little light there was, willing himself to see further, out over the obsidian waves to see... Nothing.
There – a shadow, flitting across the waves – fast – too fast! Even as he watched, the shadow condensed, became solid, revealed itself as an aircraft. Étienne’s blood ran cold. It was headed straight for them. How had nobody seen it? His hand jerked down to the whistle around his neck, and he raised it to his lips – suddenly dry, so dry. He took a deep breath, preparing to sound the alarm. It would be his last.
In range now, and Vasiliy’s finger clenched reflexively on the trigger. The small aircraft shuddered as the fore-facing guns roared, sending a fusillade of cannon shells whining towards their target. Vasiliy was too close to miss. He zoomed high over the deck of the frigate as the first shells impacted, punching fist-sized holes through steel plate and superstructure. Below, and now rapidly behind him, a cacophony erupted.
Explosions. Splintering wood. Shattering glass. Screams. The cold rushing sound of water.
Far behind the Russian airman now, on the observation deck, Étienne looked down to his tunic, where shrapnel had torn a bloody hole. He felt the sticky wetness as his clothes quickly became saturated in crimson - almost black in the dim light. He sagged to the rail, the air rasping out of the wound in his chest. The ship pitched and rocked, like an animal in pain - an explosion below decks as one of the magazines caught fire.
As the ship began to heel over, its spine broken, rushing water filling compartments faster than the failing pumps could handle it, Étienne slid from his perch into the icy water. As his vision faded and the numbing cold clutched him, he heard the pulsing of the ships’ turbines slow. As his own heartbeat faded, they stopped, replaced by the popping of steel under pressure, and the roar of air as the twisted hull of the Triomphante sank below the waves.