Sunday, November 16, 2014
The Battle for October Sky – Part Four
Beaumont woke up on hard-packed earth next to Ives, in the only cage not filled with weasels. To his left and right, the mangy creatures scratched and chewed at the wire mesh separating their enclosures from his own, their rancid musk adding to his blooming headache. Ives huddled in the cell’s middle, wiping at the dried blood at his ears and nose. From somewhere beyond their cage, the thrumming and buzzing of machinery filled the air.
“How long?” Beaumont asked.
“About an hour,” Ives said a bit louder than necessary.
“Any ideas as to where are we?”
Ives pointed to the cage’s door, where someone had obviously and hastily nailed boards to reinforce their enclosure to withstand escape attempts from larger occupants. Beaumont moved to peer through a gap to find that they were in a dark corner inside the wooden building housing the electrolysis plant. The true scale of the operation made Beaumont blanch.
The central area held a twenty-foot tall column wrapped about by pipes, wires, and metal scaffolding. Workers, who eschewed the Caliphate soldier’s normal desert robes for sleeveless shirts and baggy pants, walked the scaffolding, checking gauges, looking inside the column through reinforced windows, and changing out hydrogen cylinders. Beaumont’s gaze followed a bundle of wiring to fifty man-sized lockers. A worker threw a lever on a locker and opened the door, while another worker with a long hooked pole reached in and pulled out a deader by a metal collar attached to its neck. The deader seemed ready to fall over, its necromantic energy spent, as another was maneuvered into place and the locker door shut.
If his own engineer could get a lifting cell filled in an hour with two deaders and a modest dynamo, this operation would completely refill a ship like the October Sky in the same amount of time. The machine seemed limited only by the availability of the deaders and the lake’s water level. But something still bothered Beaumont, the scale of the place was too large for a location so remote.
Moreover, along the far wall, pipe sections as big around as Beaumont’s forearm were stacked like honeycombs. A handful of workers gathered around a nearby table and appeared to be assembling some sort of cone-topped cylinder, though Beaumont couldn’t fathom its purpose. One of the workers brought out a limp weasel from a nearby cage with a pair of long-handled tongs and lowered it into the machine.
A foot scraped nearby, and a guard in desert robes appeared. He walked toward the door and banged on it with the butt of his rifle. He grunted as Beaumont retreated a step and then resumed his patrol, giving the weasels a wide berth as they surged to their pen’s door at his passing.
“What do you make of it?” Ives asked.
Beaumont came away from the slit. “It’s too big. It could resupply the Caliph’s entire fleet in a week, and keep it stocked for months.”
“Perhaps their airships leak more gas than our own,” Ives ventured.
“Let’s say they do. Does it make sense to put a facility this large in the middle of nowhere? Practically unguarded?”
“It is closer to the Badlands. They need the deaders for power.”
“Possibly, but it’s surely easier to transport deaders to a more secure lake within the Caliphate than to make their airships fly here to resupply. And for just hydrogen? Where are the foodstuffs? The barrels of axle grease and bolts of sail cloth? Bombs and the like?”
“Perhaps they’re afraid of explosions,” Ives said.
“As they should be,” Beaumont said. “But there’s prudence, and there’s stupidity. The Caliphate, for all its crudeness, is not altogether stupid, despite what our esteemed leadership thinks. ”
Ives smiled in the dimness. “You say that as if you hold no confidence in the Council.”
Beaumont blew out a sigh and sat facing Ives. “Why us, Ives? Of all the ships available, the October Sky was singled out for this mission rather than others closer to your position. Why give vague, sweeping latitude to a council attaché over a ship of the line?”
“I couldn’t possibly comment,” Ives said.
“Not even now, in this place?” Beaumont’s arms swept the cell.
Ives looked away.
“So be it, then. Youth ever believes in its personal invincibility. Pity that you won’t learn from your illusion’s shattering.”
Ives stood and swung a booted foot at a weasel’s head poking through the wire. The animal’s bones cracked, and it flailed about as its brethren fell upon it.
“The problem with your kind, Beaumont, is that you presume to lecture all within earshot with your so-called wisdom.”
“Yes, one who measures a man by his gunnery scores and accumulated medals .”
“You believe this?”
“Your Air Marshal says as much, talking down to the council he is supposed to serve.”
“Ah. And because of wounded pride, the council sacrifices my crew.”
“If you choose to see it that way. Or one could say your Air Marshal’s bravado and boasting provoked the council to take a more direct hand in fleet operations.” Ives thought for a moment and shrugged. “With some bad luck along the way.”
The weasels had tired gnawing on their wounded brother, and went back to scratching at the cage walls. Beaumont looked on the corpse with pity, then with shock as its skeletal form twitched and writhed. No creature could have lived through that mauling, and yet the form shambled and scratched its way along the floor as much as its damaged musculature allowed. It reminded Beaumont of something he had seen when still on his first tour as an ensign, a tour that took his ship into the Badlands with orders to secure necromantic power sources. He remembered a deader, legs shorn by accidental cannon discharge, scrabbling and inching its way towards him, a look of naked hunger on its desiccated face. A look that all the weasels in the cages around him shared.
“Ives,” he whispered, “if I were you, I would keep my distance from those creatures.”
“Vermin have never bothered me, captain.”
“Time to make an exception, then. Have you ever wondered why the deader curse affects only humankind? I believe we have found evidence that it does not.”
Ives looked from side to side, and scooted away from the walls. “Saint Van Halen,” he whispered.
Beaumont’s stomach sank as an idea struck him. “Indeed. And if you had discovered multitudes such as these, and had an excess of hydrogen what might you do?”
Ives rose to his feet and ran to the door, peering out through the slit. “Tiny motors, fuselage, directional fins, and a small warhead.”
“And a deader weasel, to which an airship must look an awful lot like an egg. This isn’t a refueling station, it’s a munitions factory.”
“Worse, if those deader weasels can actually guide their craft to a target, our advantage in gunnery evaporates.”
Ives nodded. “Then we had better redouble our escape effort.”
“Really?” Beaumont asked, “And how do you propose to effect that?”
A footstep scuffed outside the cages and the weasels surged to investigate. A curly-haired shadow stopped before the door’s crack.
“Might I be of assistance, Captain?” Chevket said.
Beaumont’s heart rose, and he wanted to crow, but he kept his decorum. “Why yes, Mister Chevket , we would quite appreciate your assistance in opening the door.”