Author's Note: this story takes place in the same world as my fantasy/steampunk world featured in a previous story: Badlands Journal
Captain Reginald Beaumont stared out over the sea of dunes searching for signs of life: a dot suggesting a head, natural oases, a line of tracks in the sand, fresh kills, man-sized shadows. In short, anything that could harbor a threat to his airship. One loony with a rifle would be all it would take. One lucky shot to deflate the wrong air sac, or jam an elevator, or the rudder, to consign his airship and crew to a slow death upon the sands. Damn the desert heat! Beaumont reached up to his collar buttons but stopped short. No, better to wait until he was out of the crew's view. Let them see sweat, not weakness.
A faint cough sounded behind him, more as an announcement of presence than actual need to expunge the lungs.
"Yes, Chevket?" Beaumont said.
"Sir," the younger, taller, and much thinner man said, "the engine room reports that our powerplant will need changing within the hour."
"Have we lost the capability of hot-swapping deaders?"
Chevket turned his head and gave an apologetic bow. "The engineer feels it would aid the deaders' recovery if we did not subject them to the undue stress of swapping while under load."
"Duly noted. Inform Mister Wallace to proceed with the hot-swap."
"Sir." Chevket moved to the brass tube and began relaying the order to the engine room.
Engineers, thought Beaumont, must have fears of becoming deaders themselves the way they coddled their charges. More interested in their unnaturally-animated husks and the precious engines they powered than for the integrity of the of the October Sky's gleaming silver envelope floating the airframe and all the truly living souls aboard. Such was the luxury of a ship’s engineer, but not its captain.
"Weaponry report," Beaumont said.
Ensign Charles' first attempt at speech came out as an awkward pubescent squeak.
"All – that is, all turrets are green, pneumatics loading systems ready to pressurize." The youth's face reddened as chuckles sounded from around the bridge.
"That will do, gentlemen," Beaumont said, though he couldn't keep the grin from his face. "Mister Charles: gunnery drill, if you please."
"Mister Chevket, you have the conn."
In the privacy of his cabin, Beaumont removed his jacket and let cooler air circulate around him. Cannon fire erupted from the port side, muffled explosions followed by the rattling of the airframe. His shoulders relaxed and Beaumont leaned further back into his chair. Nothing like the sounds of battle to clear one's head. Beaumont opened a red leather book on his desk and removed the envelope stuck between log entries.
To R. Beaumont, Captian, October Sky,
Proceed SSW to quadrant 13, wasteland border. Hold station until contacted by Agent of the Council using FLARE, STANDARD, GREEN. Rendezvous and render any and all assistance to agent. Return to Stratocaster Aerodrome on conclusion of agent's mission.
Signed: M. Remmy, Air Marshal, P.C.A.C
Below, in a handwritten postscript:
Reginald, it pains me to have to assign you this duty when I know you would rather use your skills against the Caliph's raiders at the northern borders. However, the Minister himself has specifically requested your ship for this mission. Keep a weather eye on the horizon, my friend.
Beaumont folded the letter and tapped it against the desk. He had served under Marcus in the war for independence against the Caliphate. Marcus Remmy had become the Hero of October in the decisive battle against the Caliph's invading forces. Beaumont's airship was named after the man. Marcus was virtually bulletproof in the eyes of the people, the best conceivable Air Marshal a city would ever want.
The council didn't see the threats in the desert anymore, secure in their self-enforced ignorance of the Caliph's probing raids over the borders, the unrest stirring in the wasteland territory. Just as they were blind to renewed rumors of the Bloody Samurai seen in the wasteland, and wild deaders massing in numbers never before seen. No, the council sat in the highest tower on a floating island, believing that nothing on the ground could touch them, their impregnable fortress secured by Paradise City’s famous but aging airships.
Fools, all of them. They wanted Marcus cowed, isolated, a figurehead. And Marcus, for all his tactical genius, was no politician. There could be no coincidence that the October Sky, named after his most famous battle was being at best shown as the council's plaything, at worst a sacrificial piece for an object lesson. Damn Marcus! His pride always got in the way, and now Beaumont and his crew would pay for it through no fault of their own. All Beaumont could do now was try to minimize the damage.
The cannonades ceased, and Beaumont lost his train of thought. A whistle came through the brass speaking tube.
"Captain to the bridge," a tinny voice said.
Beaumont steeled himself against the heat and stormed onto the bridge, addressing Mister Chevket's back. "Blast it man, what's worth letting my gunners go rusty?"
"If you will, sir, there is something down there you should see." Chevket handed Beaumont a pair of binoculars. "Three points starboard, sir, ten miles out."
The binocular's eyepieces were already sweaty from Chevket's use. Beaumont swept through the sand dunes to settle on a kind of undulating shadow. There didn't appear to be any object capable of making such a strange shape, nor was there any undue heat shimmer in the area.
"What kind of light makes a shadow like that?"
"It is not a shadow, sir." Chevket said.
"Willie Nelson's beard it's not, I can see –"
A face appeared in the shadow, then a hand, an arm. Just as quickly, it all disappeared into darkness. From another section of shadow, a different face with sunken eyes, missing the lower jaw. He could see what the shadow for what is was now, not an absence of light, but a mass of blackened flesh.
"Deaders," Beaumont said, "There must be hundreds of them. My pardon, Chevket."
"I scarcely believed it myself, sir. I thought it prudent to cancel the gunnery practice under the circumstances. "
"Navigation," Beaumont said, "How far from the wasteland?"
"Twenty miles, sir."
"So many," Beaumont said, sweeping the binoculars across the mob. "And so far away from their territory."
"Orders?" Chevket said.
Beaumont lowered the binoculars and resisted wiping the sweat from his brow. "Would that we had nets and a hunting party of Necros, this lot could power a whole squadron. Blast it all!” He turned his back on the desert. “Take us higher and go around. I haven't heard yet of a deader who could shoot a rifle, but I don't intend to tempt the lesson. Put gunnery on standby watch, and let's hope our VIP just wants to go home."
The green flare went up from the middle of a melee, two miles over the Badlands border. Several figures scurried about the rooftop of a dilapidated grocery store while others clambered up the walls in makeshift human pyramids. One attacker gained purchase on the roof just in time to be skewered by a defender's spear. The next attacker grabbed his dying comrade and hurled him to the ground, spear and all. A knife flashed at the now-disarmed defender, who crumpled. The attacker’s success was cut short by a pistol shot from a man in the middle of the ringed defenders. More defenders stepped in, shoring up the breach, but their perimeter was thinning and shrinking. From the east, more fighters approached on a motley collection of motorcycles, dune buggies, four-wheelers and even a few bicycles.
"Sharpshooters to the rails, Mister Chevket.”
Beaumont leaned into the brass speaking tube. "Gunnery, concentrate fire on incoming vehicles, 'ware the friendlies on the rooftops. "
The port cannons opened fire, sending their shells to the rear of the approaching pack. Several bicycles tumbled in the air, riderless. Rifles cracked along the portside, making a human pyramid shudder and collapse. The defenders seemed to take heart and fought their attackers with renewed vigor. Between the rifles and the renewed defense, the attackers soon broke off and ran, scattering like ants. The cannons boomed once more, and those motorcycles not caught in the blast turned and escaped as they could, dodging the raining dirt, debris, and odd rifle shot.
"They appear to be moving off, sir," Chevket said.
"Very well, cease fire but keep the sharp shooters posted and the gunnery charged. Send the ornithopter down to the roof to collect the survivors."
"Sir." Chevket said.
Beaumont watched his second relay the orders and leave the bridge to organize the ornithoper party. A quiet man, Chevket. Efficient, almost anticipating his orders. He wouldn’t have a first officer like that for long before a command berth opened. More the pity that Chevket’s replacement would probably be some city councilman’s whining spawn, rather than a seasoned officer. The service wasn’t what it was, with the fighting men graying and the emerging cadre more interested in their next assignment than their current billet.
Ah, but if Chevket could make it to command, perhaps hope was not all lost. His first officer was in the ornithopter’s open cockpit now, sorting out the riflemen and telling the pilot to launch. The ‘thopter’s wings extended a moment before the pilot released the craft from the October Sky’s docking cradle. The dragonfly-like craft sped toward the survivors.
“Mister Charles!” Beaumont bellowed, making the ensign jump to the deck. Beaumont repressed a smile. “Have the doctor prepare to treat the injured, and secure berths for the survivors. We have one VIP coming up, see to it that his accommodation is up to standard.”
“Yes, sir,” Ensign Charles said, managing to keep his voice from cracking.
“Well, don’t just stand there, Ensign! If I have to –“ but the boy was already sliding down the bridge ladder. Captain Beaumont allowed himself a little smile. Young ensigns had more energy than sense. It was best to keep them off guard at all times to keep them out of trouble.
A thin-lipped Chevket alighted from the ornithopter with a youngish man trailing behind, who Beaumont recognized as the pistol-wielder from the store rooftop. But for the city sigil hanging from a chain around his neck, the man was dressed like a wasteland cannibal: tools, knives, and pistols stuck into lashings wrapped around sand-scoured robes. Beaumont saluted, though he wasn’t sure the man deserved it.
“Captain Beaumont, of the October Sky.”
The other man nodded and walked past Beaumont towards the bridge. “Ives. I need to talk to your navigator,” he said over his shoulder.
Beaumont glanced at Chevket, who gave his head a half-shake usually reserved for rear admirals on inspection tours. So it was like that then.
“Transport the wounded, Mister Chevket, the doctor is waiting.” Beaumont turned on his heel and walked after Agent Ives.
He made it to the bridge just behind Ives.
“Turn this craft north, best speed,” Ives said to the helmsman, Mister Docks.
Docks looked to Beaumont.
“Now!” Ives snapped.
“On the October Sky, we follow the chain of command, Agent Ives,” Beaumont said.
Ives rounded on him. “Your orders, Captain, are to render all aid to me, are they not?”
Beaumont clenched a fist behind his back.”They are.”
“And you intend on obeying those orders?”
“Good, then I won’t have to shoot you. Now turn north at best speed, then find me your navigator.” Ives turned and started leafing through the charts on the map table.
Beaumont didn’t trust himself to speak civilly, so he met the helmsman’s wide eyes and just nodded. The man managed an ‘aye, sir,’ and brought the October Sky around to its new heading.
Beaumont joined Ives at the map table and bent to the man’s ear.
“In the future, kindly allow me to give the crew their orders. You may be in command of this mission, but I am responsible for the operation of my ship and for my crew’s welfare.”
“What’s this?” Ives asked, pointing to a circle on a map.
Beaumont let out a slow breath. “We encountered a sizeable mob of deaders there.”
“Take me there.”
“Might I ask why?”
Ives looked up and regarded Beaumont. “Never mind, Captain. Relay my orders.”
“You realize that heading will take us east, not north,” Beaumont said.
“Relay the order.”
Beaumont turned. “Helm, come about to heading eight-four, make your altitude two-zero-zero-zero. Ahead full.”
And let’s hope the man doesn’t get us all killed for curiosity’s sake.
Agent Ives muttered to himself as he gazed at the mob of deaders. It was the most the man had spoken in the last hour, which suited Beaumont just fine. Footsteps clanked on the ladder, and Chevket soon appeared. He took in the bridge with a glance and frowned at Beaumont, doubtless picking up on the tension among the crew.
“Agent Ives has taken a keen interest in the deaders we passed on our way to pick him up,” Beaumont said.
“I had wondered why we stopped.”
“As do I, Mister Chevket.”
“Doubtless, our esteemed guest will make his mind known in due course.”
Beaumont let that one lie. “What of his men?” he asked.
“Five wounded seriously but now stable, and three with lesser injuries. Five died in triage, ten were left dead in the wastes. From what I can determine, they are all mercenaries.”
“Really? When did the council ban on hiring such… persons expire?”
“They are under contract to Agent Ives personally, not to the council,” Chevket said.
“Is that so?” Beaumont said. Ives lowered his binoculars and strode to Beaumont’s chair. “We were just talking about your personal army detachment, Agent Ives.”
“I make the deader count below us at 257. Is that consistent with your assessment, Captain?”
“Your men are being treated by our ship’s doctor,” Beaumont said, “though I am afraid some were beyond his help.”
A look of annoyance flashed across Ives’ face. “My compliments to your doctor, Captain. Now, the deaders?”
“We estimated between two and three hundred when we first spotted them.”
“Estimated,” Ives said with disgust. “Why did you not make an exact count?”
“Because we were on our way to extract you and your men, per our orders.”
“Do you realize the strategic importance of a herd this size?”
Beaumont blinked. “Herd? Sir, in my years of service I have rarely seen more than a dozen in any concentration. Herd they may be, and I realize their potential use to the fleet, but we are ill-equiped to deal with such a number.”
“Typical,” Ives muttered. The young agent ran a hand through his hair and nodded as to himself. “Very well, Captain.” He sketched a nod to Beaumont and returned to the windows with his binoculars.
At least we’re not being shot at.Beaumont glanced at the chronometer, and then to Chevket. “Mister Chevket, please ensure the steward sets an extra place at the mess tonight.” Perhaps the man would be more tractable after filling his stomach.
“Agent Ives, it would be my pleasure to host you at the Captain’s mess this evening,” Beaumont said.
Ives waved a hand. “I’ll just grab something from the crew’s mess and dine in my cabin.”
Chevket rocked as if slapped. “Sir, it is a terrible breach of manners to –“
Captain Beaumont held up a palm. “It is quite all right, Mister Chevket. Agent Ives is our guest on this vessel, and may dine as he pleases.”
And, he added to himself, would save him the trouble of restraining the other officers from stabbing the man with a fork.
“Thank you, Captain,” Ives said. “I’ll go and get something to eat now. In the meantime, set a course backtracking that herd. There’s something unnatural about them, and I want to see who or what brought them together.”
Dinner was the cook’s best imitation of roast beef with root vegetables and gravy. Whatever he had used in place of beef was a bit gamey and Beaumont thought it better not to speculate as to its origin. The officers ate with the usual relish he would have expected after a battle, but Beaumont found stiff backs and forced joviality yet among them. The conversation soon turned to their visitor.
“Let him eat his crumbs alone, I say,” said his navigator, Nev Arthas. “You’ve shown the little prat more than enough courtesy, Captain.”
“Belay that, Mister Arthas,” Chevket said. “It’s not your place to criticize.”
“He’s not wrong,” said Doctor Talbert. “Those men of his. I haven’t seen any more callously used than those poor souls. They’re near to dropping over from dehydration and malnutrition.”
“This is already turning out to be more than a mere rescue, Captain, or a sightseeing tour for a Council flunky,” Arthas said. “Is there any indication on what we’re doing out here?”
Forks stopped in mid-air and eyes skewed. Beaumont swirled his coffee and frowned into his cup. “We are trying to find where those deaders came from. If there’s a large concentration out there that we can harvest, it might well give us a decisive advantage over the Caliphate.”
“I heard we could field twenty more hulls like the October Sky if we just had the deaders to power them.” Wallace said. Some eyes brightened. Twenty new airships would need twenty new crews, which meant promotions for seasoned veterans and perhaps commands of their own, provided the council didn’t fill the billets with spit-shine bureaucrats.
“Provided the Caliph’s navy doesn’t find them first,” someone muttered.
“Or if that flatlander council agent bollixes the whole thing,” Arthas said.
Wallace said, “Why send just us? We’re one ship. How many does the Caliphate has skulking around the wastelands?”
Voices muttered assent around the table.
“The reason, gentlemen,” Chevket said, “Is that we are the October Sky, and we are disciplined aeronauts, not that barbaric rabble from the Caliphate.”
“We’re not deaders under a necro’s control either,” said Arthas. “We out-think the enemy. Discipline makes us function, but you can’t tell me Remmy can foresee every possibility.” He paused and seemed to realize he was courting trouble. “But that’s what the Captain’s for,” he added.
Beaumont regarded his navigator. “There are orders, and there are orders, Mister Arthas. We will execute those orders so that Agent Ives will have no complaint. My job is to make sure that Agent Ives is satisfied, and you all come home safe. From you, mister, I ask only for your trust and dedication to duty so that our ship performs as I know it can.”
Arthas reddened. “Of course, Captain, you always have that, but I wanted to point out the danger that agent puts us in. I’d be lax to keep my mouth shut.”
Beaumont nodded. “Thank you. I would expect no less of you, or from any of you,” he said, looking around the table at faces filled with mixes of anger, fear, dedication, and resolve. “For now, rest assured that we’re just on a reconnaissance mission. I expect our charge will bore of these deaders and soon be ready to return home.
Heads nodded, and shoulders relaxed. Beaumont hoped he was right.
To be continued...