Friday, November 21, 2014
The Battle for October Sky – Part Five
They ran up the hill’s path pushing a cart laden with gas cylinders, disarmed rockets, and a crate of weasels. Sweat stung Beaumont’s eyes, and his gums throbbed as Ives cursed them for laggards. Beaumont’s pocket watch, secured to the cart by its fob chain, swung before him. The sweeping second hand told him that no matter how his legs burned, or his lungs ached, he would need to keep running for thirty more seconds. They needed to make it another hundred feet, and then he could rest.
Chevket pushed beside him, seemingly at his ease apart from casting nervous glances down the path behind them. Beaumont hoped his first officer’s luck would continue to hold. The man escaped the explosion that both knocked out Beaumont and Ives and claimed the lives of his crewmen, ironically, by hiding in the cave filled with hydrogen cylinders. In the ensuing chaos, he secured a fully-loaded hand cart from an unwary deliveryman, and circled back when he realized Ives and Beaumont were being held in the main building.
The cart hit a rock in the path and bounced, the cylinders jostling with heart-stopping clangs, but thankfully no sparks. The weasels chittered and snapped in their cage, which also mercifully remained latched. Beaumont was hunched forward as he pushed, and his face mere inches from the cage. It would be a particularly horrid experience to be swarmed over by their rancid bodies and sharp teeth should they escape. The weapons’ inclusion went against Chevket’s wishes, who had a heated, whispered argument with Ives when the agent insisted on including them. Chevket urged for immediate escape, citing the remaining crew of the October Sky relying on them all for getting the ship back to port, while Ives argued that bringing home this evidence of a new weapon of paramount importance. Beaumont reluctantly agreed with the agent only because the cold calculus of strategy placed this new weapon’s importance over the safety of an airship’s crew.
And so they ran, heedless of the shouts and rifle reports behind them, hoping that Ives assertion that they get to the top of the valley with their cart in eight minutes and not a second less was correct. The rifle fire fell off, and an ornithopter’s engine whined as its pilot prepared it for launch, doubtlessly with a rifle squad on board. Within minutes, they would be caught in the open.
“Fifteen seconds,” Beaumont hissed.
Ives cursed their collective legitimacy and speculated on their mothers’ improbable indiscretions with the animal world.
“Permission to shoot that man if we don’t make it, Captain?” Chevket said between breaths.
Beaumont puffed and pumped his legs faster. “Granted.”
The second hand on Beaumont’s watch swept past the eight-minute mark, and he called the time. They brought the cart to a stop and looked back over the valley. The ornithopter was lifting, its pilot steadying the craft as its legs left the ground. It hovered, and Beaumont could make out five other men in its open cockpit, rifles at the ready.
“I thought you said eight minutes, Ives,” Beaumont said.
“Perhaps the devices were discovered,” Chevket said.
Ives shook his head as he stood with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. The ornithopter began rising, ten feet, then twenty. There was an audible pop, then the wooden factory building shattered to splinters as a fireball rolled into the air. The ornithopter was thrown back towards the valley wall when a second explosion like dragon’s breath shot from the fuel dump carved into the rock. The ornithopter turned over, spinning like a ball and augered into the lake. The rumbling of the explosions echoed through the surrounding valleys for several seconds before silence fell.
Ives spread his hands. “I said a cigarette burns for eight minutes on average. You can’t expect precision munitions when one has to scrounge for parts.”
Wallace’s relief upon their return was such that Beaumont thought the engineer grew two inches before their eyes.
“How soon can we have her aloft, Mister Wallace?” Beaumont asked.
“Fifteen minutes to fill, another fifteen to shift ballast and do a rough trim. She’s airworthy, but will handle like a cow once we’re underway.”
Ives snorted and opened his mouth to speak, then seemed to think better of it as Wallace glared at him. Perhaps the council agent could be taught, Beaumont mused.
Beaumont pursed his lips and looked over his airship. The ship’s envelope was flattened from top to bottom, and air sacs bulged where battle damage had ripped the metal caging away. The October Sky was less a sleek cigar and more a tumored slug, but he would get her home, if he had to make a deal with the Devil herself.
“Very well, Mister Wallace, make it so.”
“And the rockets?” Chevket asked.
“They must be kept safe, Captain,” Ives said. “We need to know more about their manufacture and warn the council. I’m afraid I must insist on this point. Post a guard, two men with side arms, and no one but myself allowed access.”
“We haven’t the crewmen to spare , sir,” Chevket said. “It will take every hand to operate October Sky.” He stood with an apparently impassive face, but Beaumont could see the man’s tension in the set of his spine.
“Then you might have to actually get your hands dirty, man!” Ives snapped. The man’s hand crept toward his sidearm, but Chevket did not blink.
“That will do, Agent Ives,” Beaumont said. “Mister Chevket is only exercising his prerogative to remind those of us in command as to the ramifications of our orders.” As if the crew hadn’t already seen the rockets and figured their nature as Beaumont had already. “See to it, Mister Chevket. And while you’re at it, see to it that these creatures are properly stowed for transport.” Beaumont indicated the weasel cage. “Consult with Mister Wallace if needed.”
“Does Mister Ives have any specific instructions on the weasels?” Chevket said, turning to the agent.
“Use your prerogative Mister Chevket.” Ives turned on a heel and strode for the gangway.
“I admit my surprise at your antagonism,” Beaumont said. “Best make sure you obey his instructions to the letter, Chevket, he’s a dangerous man to make your enemy.”
Chevket smiled his bland smile and inclined his head. “I think you have it the wrong way around, Captain. If you’ll excuse me, I will see to putting Agent Ives’ orders into effect.”
Beaumont held in a sigh. Chevket would certainly earn a captaincy, but would he ever receive one?
They cast off within the hour, drawing against an unfortunate headwind with their most un-aerodynamic airframe. The helmsman exchanged nervous glances with the navigator, and Beaumont caught the hiss of whispered conversations as eyes searched the sky for pursuit. Beaumont could not blame them, he felt as if he were sitting underneath a lumbering bomb himself. Still, the mood could affect the crew’s performance, and that would not do. He caught the eye of Ensign Charles, who was biting his lip and looking more like the twelve-year-old schoolboy than an officer. Charles started, but relaxed when Beaumont winked.
“I daresay Young Mister Charles will be shaving by the time we make port,” Beaumont said. Chuckles and smiles made their way around the bridge. “Mister Chevket, please make a note to draw up an order of training for the ensign on the finer points of grooming one’s beard. It would not do to have Mister Charles greet his mother with birds and the like nesting in his facial hair.”
“Of course, Captain,” Chevket said with all the gravitas of ordering the crew to prepare for boarders.
Beaumont turned his chair to face the helm. “Mister Docks, what is your opinion on entrusting the use of a straight versus a safety razor to the young ensign.”
Docks turned away from the windscreen, where he had been craning his neck from side to side. “Sir?”
Beaumont tucked his chin in mock seriousness. “It’s a straightforward question, man! Do we trust that Mister Charles will not lop off an ear with a straight blade at the get-go, or do we make him demonstrate proficiency with a safety razor beforehand?”
Docks looked puzzled, his gaze swinging between Charles and Beaumont for a few moments before he regained his composure. “I… I believe the ensign has demonstrated nerve enough to hold a naked blade.”
“You’re certain?” Beaumont said.
Docks hesitated. “Of course.”
Beaumont steepled his fingers. “I see. So would you be willing to sit in the chair and have Mister Charles cut away your own stray whiskers?”
Mister Docks glanced at Ensign Charles, whose eyes had grown large, and whose body tensed to the point of a barely perceptible quiver. Docks’ face paled. Beaumont could hold it in no longer. He laughed, setting off a chain reaction of the same around the bridge, and even Docks joined in after a moment or two. Charles smiled, glancing around him, and seemingly not quite certain if he was yet off the hook or not.
The speaking tube whistled, and Beaumont watched as Chevket attended to it. The crew went back to their posts, shoulders relaxed and settling into normal bridge chatter. Chevket put the speaking tube away and walked over to lean over Beaumont’s ear.
“Contact aft, sir. It appears to be the mother ship to the ornithopters that attacked us earlier.”
“Ten miles and closing.”
Beaumont nodded. “Sound battle stations, and give priority to the aft batteries.”
“They mount twenty-pounders on carriers, we’ll take withering volleys before we can respond with our own fifteens,” Chevket said.
“Assuming their captain deigns to close the range, which I would not count upon.”
“Then what is our plan, Captain?”
Footsteps rang in the gangway leading to the bridge, the unmistakable cadence of Ives approaching. The man had probably been fussing over the rockets like a mother hen and her eggs. The image gave him an idea.
“Chevket, do you recall Agent Ives’ exact orders?”
“Of course, sir. To the letter.”
Beaumont glanced over his shoulder. “As do I. Now here is what I want you to do…” And Beaumont gave Chevket his orders.
Ives came close to shouldering Chevket as the two passed, but avoided contact at the last second as Chevket gave ground. The first officer slid down the bridge ladder and ran down the gangway.
“Report, Captain,” Ives said. The man didn’t even have the curtesy to look embarrassed or uncomfortable when heads turned and Ensign Charles gasped.
“We have an airship coming in behind us, the carrier we encountered earlier.”
Ives glanced around the bridge, making the other crewmen take a sudden interest in the panels and controls before them. “And what are you doing about it?”
Beaumont tapped a finger on his armrest. “Normally the October Sky could easily outrun or outmaneuver every airship in the Caliph’s fleet. That advantage is gone in our current state.”
“Then we’ll have to fight our way out.”
“A losing proposition, sir. Carriers mount cannons larger than our own, and this one can easily stay well within her effective range while remaining outside our own. With our air cells now partially filled with hydrogen, all it should take is one lucky shot, I would think.”
“And you will just let them do it. No, Captain, I’m not going down without a fight.” He drew his pistol, holding it casually, but staring into Beaumont’s eyes.
Would Ives do it? Beaumont surprised himself by discovering he did not care. “Do put that thing away, Mister Ives. Shooting me won’t get the crew to fight for you.”
“It might give me some satisfaction before we’re shot down.”
“If you want satisfaction, file a report when we are back in port. We’re not going to be shot down today, if I have anything to say about it. Now kindly put up your sidearm.”
Ives stared back at Beaumont for a few moments longer, but slid the pistol back into its holster.
“So what is this plan of doing nothing that will yet win the day?”
“Fortunately, the carrier doesn’t seem to have any ornithopters left, or they would have been deployed by now. So we will wait for their ship to come closer.”
“Closer with cannons we cannot match.”
The next few minutes passed in silence, apart from the whistling airstream and thrum of the engines. Ives paced the deck while Beaumont, strapped into his command chair, fought the urge to do the same. His bladder felt near to bursting, though he knew that not to be true. When Marcus Remmy had been his captain, he had always spoken about commanders that could hold their water and while Beaumont had thought he understood the idiom at the time, he only truly appreciated it now.
He looked down and found his finger tapping against his armrest. In the rear-view mirrors, the behemoth airship angled to bring its weapons to bear. Seconds later, cannon fire erupted, smoke visible a moment before the thunderclap rattled through the airframe.
“Captain,” Ives said, drawing the word out in warning.
“Ranging shot. Never hits its target,” Beaumont replied.
“Well, hardly ever.” Let the man chew on that, Beaumont thought.
Ives began to speak, but was cut off by the speaking tube’s whistle. Ensign Charles answered, putting his ear to the brass end piece.
“Mister Chevket reports ready, Captain,” he said in a clear voice.
“Very well, commence fire,” Beaumont said.
“I thought our cannons were out of range,” Ives said as Charles relayed the command.
Beaumont pointed at the mirrors, and they watched as two objects streaked from the October Sky towards the enemy airship. Guns twinkled from the other craft’s decks, but missed the curving and corkscrewing rockets. Then the craft jumped a hundred feet upward as its crew dropped all its ballast, and one rocket dove at the sandbags in pursuit. The other rocket nosed upward, and struck amidships with an explosion like a needle of fire. The airship shuddered as the needle drove upward and then swelled into a gigantic blue-orange cloud.
“Brace for –“ Beaumont shouted as the October Sky shook and groaned on the concussive wave. Then everything went quiet, and the flaming wreck of the enemy ship fell into the clouds below.
“Damage report?” Beaumont said.
“No injuries, all sections holding,” Charles said.
Ives folded his arms and turned from the windscreen. “You used those rockets without orders, Captain,” he said.
“Technically, your orders were to store them safely, which they were.”
“They didn’t have weasels inside them when I left.”
“Ah, well, your orders to Mister Chevket regarding the weasels was for him to use his prerogative in the method best suited for storing them. He decided to store the weasels in vessels specifically designed to house them. A good thing too, or else we would have been shot down, rockets and all.”
“Perhaps so. Nevertheless, we have lost valuable intelligence.”
Beaumont shook his head. “I don’t think so. Mister Wallace assisted with storing the weasels, and will most likely have a working knowledge of how the devices could be manufactured. The rockets did seem rather simple things after all, once you have a weasel to guide them. Moreover, we can now report their effectiveness in combat. Their speed, maneuverability, effectiveness, and even their weaknesses.”
“We lost one rocket when its weasel decided to chase a sandbag rather than the craft. If those things can be easily distracted, we may have a chance to counter them.”
Ives grunted and turned on his heel, heading for the bridge ladder. No doubt the man would be extra-insufferable for the next few days, but he would come around. For all his bluster, Beaumont knew Ives’ career and reputation depended on favorably reporting this debacle to the council. Perhaps in the future the man would make trouble, but Beaumont would fight that battle when it came to him. In the meantime, he had more important things to worry about.
“Secure from battle stations, and see if we can’t find some proper traveling music on the wireless. I could surely use some Willie Nelson or Hank Williams for the journey home.”
The soothing sounds of a steel guitar soon emerged from static over the bridge speakers. Captain Reginald Beaumont loosened the top button at his collar, and settled in for the long ride home.