Friday, November 7, 2014
Battle for October Sky – Part Three
False dawn’s light blotted at the darkness. The October Sky listed to its port side, weighed down by its flaccid envelope. Crewmen scurried over the craft’s superstructure like ants on a dying whale, shouting out reports of battle damage to their section chiefs below. Beaumont paced the ground from bow to stern, allowing the crews to see him as they went about their jobs. Agent Ives trailed behind him, saying nothing.
They had been fortunate to land in a pocket canyon; the enemy would have to be directly overhead to spot the October Sky. However, their hidden berth would only buy them a few hours extra should the Caliph’s airships discover the battle-wrecked ornithopters and begin an organized search. With steep walls lined with loose rock, the canyon would become an unescapable killing ground once under attack. Captain Beaumont checked the riflemen at the canyon’s rim, braced against the scree and ready to call out should anything approach.
“Captain,” Chevket said.
“How bad is she?” he said.
His first officer ran a hand through his hair and glanced back at the ship. “A dozen injured, but thankfully no lives lost. We have twenty cells holed beyond repair, twice that need patching to become airworthy again. The belly turrets are inoperable, and we have numerous twisted struts and popped rivets.”
Beaumont had feared as much. “And our helium?”
Chevket blew out and shook his head. “Mister Wallace is still making his estimate.”
“You’re quibbling, aren’t you?” Ives said. “You know, but you don’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Just spit it out, man.”
Beaumont arched an eyebrow at the agent but looked back at Chevket. “Well, Mister?”
Chevket spared a dark look for Ives before swallowing. “It doesn’t look good, sir. I hope Mister Wallace will prove me wrong.”
“Then let’s go see what our engineer has to say,” Beaumont said.
Mister Wallace came from the bowels of the ship covered in grease and shallow cuts. When he saw Beaumont and the others approach, he shouted at a deck hand to make sure the deaders were chained securely before turning his back on them. He stormed over to Beaumont and pointed at Ives.
“You incompetent flat-lander! How does it feel to know you killed us all?”
Ives’ hand drifted to hover over the sidearm strapped to his belt. “Keep talking,” he said.
“Belay that, Mister Wallace,” Beaumont said, and grabbed Ives’ wrist. “Explain yourself, and leave the dramatics out of it.”
Wallace glared at Ives as he spoke to the captain. “This fine gentleman wouldn’t let us stop to swap out the deaders. ‘Mission imperative’ I think he called it. So consequently, when we spin up to battlestations, there’s not enough juice in ‘em and we stalled out.”
Beaumont turned to Ives. “Is this true?”
Ives shrugged. “A calculated risk against losing the element of surprise. There would have been plenty of time to resupply the dynamos with a fresh team of deaders once we were on station, and we would be fully charged when our quarry emerged from the hills. I deemed it an acceptable risk.”
“You deemed?” Beaumont said. “You deemed? Why did you not consult with me?”
“You were at dinner,” Ives said. “It seemed important to you.” His face was impassive, but his voice carried an edge of distain.
It would be easier all around to have him shot, Beaumont thought. He could list Ives as lost in action if they should ever find their way back to civilization. The man was worse than a fool. He didn’t know what he didn’t know.
“In the future, Mister Ives, you will defer to me in matters of ship’s operation,” Beaumont said. “I do not mind the inconvenience.”
Ives gave a curt nod, though with an indolent gleam in his eye. “I understand, Captain,” he said.
“See that you do,” said Beaumont. He straightened and turned to his engineer. “How soon can we take her up, Mister Wallace?”
Wallace’s shoulders slumped. “We’ve enough helium to inflate half of the envelope once repairs are finished, but not enough to lift her, Captain.”
“I see,” Beaumont said. Chevket sighed and shook his head. Ives seemed taken aback at the somber crewmen.
“We can find another source, surely,” he said.
Beaumont looked to Chevket, silently granting his second in command permission to respond.
“Sir,” he said to Ives, “Helium is essentially mined from layers trapped under the surface rock. It is an exceedingly rare occurrence to find such a pocket, and in any case, we haven’t the heavy equipment needed for such an endeavor.”
Ives’ face reddened. “Are there no alternatives? Could we not use hot air like balloonists?”
Wallace sniggered, stopping as both Chevket and Beaumont frowned in his direction. Chevket went on.
“Hot air is inefficient. We could not possibly generate enough hot air to lift the October Sky."
Wallace snorted again, and turned away as he fought for composure.
“What about the Caliphate’s navy? Perhaps we could raid one of their stations for the helium.” Ives said.
Beaumont paused to consider. “Perhaps, though we would likely run out of consumables before finding such a supply base. Furthermore, such a base would imply enough air traffic to necessitate refueling and resupply.” He shook his head. “I can’t see such a raid succeeding.”
“Maybe with your men,” Ives said, quickly holding up his hands as Chevket and Wallace stiffened. “Able airmen all, no doubt, but my men are fighters. A smash and grab operation is what they excel at.”
“The handful yet able to walk?” Chevket said.
“A promise of money always finds them eager to shed their aches and maladies,” Ives said.
“I don’t like it, Captain,” said Chevket.
Beaumont removed a pipe from his jacket pocket and began plugging it with tobacco. “Were it not a plan relying on blind luck to find a hypothetical supply base, I would say we are desperate enough to try. We need a definite target before we commit our meagre resources.” He tamped the tobacco down and struck a match.
“I don’t know about helium, but I know where we could get hydrogen,” Wallace said quietly.
Beaumont cupped the flame and lit his pipe. He lifted his eyebrows in a question.
“We find the nearest body of water and use the deaders to electrolyze hydrogen directly.” Wallace turned and pointed at the deaders chained outside the October Sky’s engine compartment. “Two of them, and a portable dynamo would be enough to fill an air cell each hour.”
Chevket tilted his head, and counted to himself. “That would take forty hours to fill each lifting cell, plus transport time to and from the work site. Can we afford such exposure?” He looked at Beaumont.
“Can we afford not to?” Ives said.
Beaumont puffed, the spice-scented smoke and heat in his chest calming his nerves. “We may find that we need less than forty. Hydrogen is more efficient a lifting gas than helium, for all its more undesirable characteristics.”
Wallace laughed. “Shouldn’t be a problem, so long as we avoid smoking, cooking flames, ornithopters bearing incendiary rounds, and electrical strikes.”
“Quite,” Beaumont said. “What say you, Mister Ives?”
“I see no other choice. My men and I will be coming along to provide security for the work party.”
Beaumont inclined his head. “Make ready the excursion team, Mister Chevket.” Chevket went oddly stiff, and looked from Ives to his captain. Beaumont felt his distress, doubtlessly weighing the costs of speaking out against his captain’s decision when there was no alternative to suggest. There was a place for questioning, and a place for obedience; a good commander would know on which side of the line to fall.
Chevket, to his credit, merely bowed. “Sir.”
Ives counted ammunition while Beaumont surveyed the lake below. At least the man had the good graces not to smirk. Why they had come under attack from one of the Caliph’s carriers was now obvious, as was its supply depot. A handful of huts and tents surrounded an old wooden building at the lake’s edge. Men in the distinctive belt-wrapped robes of the Caliphate went about the camp, some pushing carts from the wooden building to an area carved into the hill well beyond the tents. Beaumont’s eyes strained to make out the cart’s cargo: metal cylinders marked with the single red circle used for marking hydrogen.
“Providence has given us an opportunity, Captain,” Ives said. “Our enemy has made our job that much the easier. There can be no more than two guarding that stockpile at the edge of camp. My men and I will secure the area.”
Beaumont glanced at the ragged mercenaries crouched behind Ives, gaunt men with hard eyes who carried their rifles with ease. Beyond them, Chevket waited with Wallace and six crewmen. His own men had nearly collapsed at the end of the trail. They were in no condition to fight or squirrel away into the night with gas canisters. And yet, what could he do? It was only a matter of time before the Caliph’s forces found them.
“There is something off about all this,” Beaumont said. “There has to be a hundred canisters in that gas dump, enough for a squadron of airships, but only a handful of men. There should be more.”
“Perhaps they’re working inside the building,” Ives said. “Which is immaterial, Captain. We need only grab what we need and escape.”
“For someone so curious aloft, you seem disinterested in what’s before you now.”
“Priorities change, Captain. Our primary goal now has to be getting the October Sky functional, and getting back to Paradise City to make our report. The Council may then decide to send a force here to investigate, or to backtrack those deaders, but in either case, I cannot hope to continue my original mission with your crippled airship.”
Beaumont bit off a retort, and wondered how many under Ives’ command contemplated shooting the man in the back. He looked to his crewmen, the portable dynamo, and the deaders rasping to no one in particular as they milled about at the end of their chains.
“Mister Wallace, how many men would it take to bring the equipment and the deaders back to the ship?” Beaumont asked.
Wallace pursed his lips as he thought. “Two for the dynamo, two more for the empty cells, and one for the deaders.”
“Very well, take four men and return to the ship, but leave us your strongest backs. We’ll need them to haul the canisters once Agent Ives and his men secure the cave.”
“And if the plan fails, sir?” Chevket murmured.
Beaumont frowned and spread his hands. “Then let us hope Mister Wallace can locate another body of water before the Caliph’s forces find him.”
They waited under the waning yet still bright moon. At midnight, Ives took his mercenaries into the shadows, and Chevket began marking the minutes. Beaumont and his crew would follow behind, waiting for Ives to take care of the guards. Beaumont patted his belt for the hundredth time, making sure his pistol was still there. He glanced at Chevket, who held up two fingers. Had it only been a minute since Ives had left? It seemed longer. His crew fidgeted, but that was to be expected. Aeronauts fought boldly in open skies, not skulking about like assassins. Though with luck, they would not have to fight at all, just haul enough hydrogen to make the October Sky fly again.
When fear began gnawing at his belly, Beaumont buried it by focusing on his crew. He went from man to man, gripping each by the shoulder and exchanging a few words of encouragement or a joke. So long as he was dealing with the fear of others, he didn’t have to face his own.
“Time, Captain,” said Chevket, putting the watch back into his pocket. Beaumont nodded and headed into the shadows along the path Ives had taken. The rustling of leaves and crunching of gravel underfoot followed him. Beaumont was aware of his own breathing and pounding heart as they crept along. Every swaying leaf, glittering stone, and inky shadow caught his eye. Beaumont kept scanning the ground before him, trying not to believe every large rock and blind corner held an ambush. Give him a clear sky and a brace of cannon any day, he thought.
He came within view of the cave and stopped. The camp was dark and quiet, the wooden building hummed with yellow light escaping through gaps in the walls. He couldn’t make out whether Ives had succeeded or failed; he couldn’t see a soul anywhere.
“Captain?” Chevket whispered.
“No sign,” Beaumont said. “We’ll give Ives a few minutes.”
Chevket rocked from foot, showing more nervousness than Beaumont had ever known from him. To be expected, Beaumont thought, Chevket was no more comfortable with skulking around than he was.
A low whistle sounded, and Ives emerged from the shadows. He held up his palms, and Beaumont lowered the pistol he hadn’t known he had drawn.
“Easy, Captain,” Ives said. “We’re clear.”
Beaumont holstered his pistol. “I didn’t hear a thing. My compliments.”
Ives nodded. “Come along.”
Beaumont signaled his men. Ives had disappeared back into the shadows by the time Beaumont turned around. They followed the valley wall to the cave entrance. Two of Ives’ mercenaries wearing the head scarves of the Caliph’s forces paced back and forth, surreptitiously waving the air crew inside. They stepped around dark logs that Beaumont realized were the bodies of the former guards.
The cave, little more than an excavated hole, held about a hundred dull silver cylinders, sweating in the cool air. Beaumont wondered at the naval potential stacked before him. Enough gas for a dozen zeppelins, or enough gas to bring down the ridgeline on their heads should a stray spark and leaky valve find each other. Ives and another of his men waited before the pile with gas cylinders in hand. Beaumont reached for an offered cylinder, but Ives leaned forward.
“Remember, Captain, that this is the most dangerous part. Don’t hurry, don’t be sloppy.” Ives released the cylinder. Beaumont grunted as he took on the load. The canister wasn’t heavy so much as it was awkward to carry and slick with condensation.
“One canister apiece, Mister Chevket, and have the men mind their grips; these bottles are slippery devils.”
“Shall I have them wrapped in our coats?” Chevket said.
“Good man. Make it so.”
Chevket removed his jacket and showed the others the idea. Canisters wrapped, they set out of the cave when Chevket tripped over a dead guard. His canister rang like a bell when it hit the ground and rolled free toward the camp. Chevket’s eyes went wide and he turned to Beaumont in horror. Tent flaps rustled, and shouts went up.
“Quickly!” Beaumont shouted, and waved his crew forward. He pointed to Agent Ives and the mercenaries. “You lot, cover them!”
Something shouldered past him, and Chevket’s lanky form disappeared into the cave.
“Come back, man!”
“Need every canister,” he shouted over his shoulder, “I’ll catch you up!”
Beaumont made to go after him, but a hand grabbed him by the collar. He whirled, ready to strike, and nearly punched Ives in the face.
“He’s right, Captain,” Ives said. “He’s got strong legs. We need to go now.”
From the camp, the shouting came closer. Beaumont cursed and ran after his men, the cylinder on his shoulder bouncing with every stride. Shots rang out, whizzing by his head.
Damn fools, Beaumont thought, one shot in the wrong place would turn the whole valley into a–
A fireball erupted before him, his men appearing as disintegrating shadows against the glare. A force picked him up and threw him into the night sky. He fell through the darkness, seemingly forever.