Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Battle for October Sky – Part Two

Beaumont climbed the bridge ladder with Ensign Charles and nodded at Helmsman Docks, who stood from the captain’s chair and held it for Beaumont.


Docks looked nervous, and glanced at Agent Ives, who was studying the navigation table. “Craft secure, all sections nominal. We are tacking across a four knot wind along a heading of three-zero-four at five hundred feet.”

“What?” Beaumont roared. “What’s our speed?”

“Nineteen knots.” Docks steeled himself and shifted his gaze to Agent Ives.

“I see,” Beaumont said. “Very well, Mister Docks, you are relieved. Go find some supper.”

The normal murmuring of the bridge crew was missing, and all seemed abnormally focused on their stations. Beaumont composed himself and swiveled his chair around.

“Mister Ives, I imagine you dictated this course and altitude?”

Ives looked up, unconcerned. “I did, Captain. Did you have a nice dinner?”

“We’re heading into the heart of the Caliphate.”

“We came across a supply column heading back along the deaders’ path. They’re winding through a narrow pass that will take them most of the night. We’re going to be waiting for them when they emerge.”

Beaumont turned to the man at the damage control panel, Airman Tooley. “Battlestations. I want the gunnery crews ready to fire in two minutes. Helm, take us to altitude one-triple-zero and put her abeam the wind.”

“Belay that order,” Ives said. “We must stay hidden behind the hills and be ready to pick up that column when dawn comes.”

“Assuming their final destination isn’t already in the hills. But we are too low regardless, an easy target.”

Ives seemed amused. “In this darkness, Captain, they can’t see us or hear us. I doubt they can even reach us with small arms even if they did.”

“Mister Ives,” Beaumont said, “What you do not fathom is that supply column is most certainly accompanied by an attack zeppelin.”

“I saw no other craft.”

“Which worries me all the more.” He glanced at the clouds above. “The moon – damned luminous orb!”

Ives’ eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

The upper turret’s speaking tube whistled. Ensign Charles answered, and swallowed hard. The bridge ladder rang with footsteps as Chevket and the senior bridge crew rushed to their places.

“Two ornithopters incoming,” Charles called out.

“Fire at will,” Beaumont said.

“Where did they come from?” Ives said.

Beaumont caught Ives’ gaze and cocked an eye upward. “The carriers fly at higher altitudes.” Beaumont put the man from his mind and concentrated on his crew. He swore to himself that he would stay calm for their sakes.

The one-man ornithopters flashed past the bridge like silver needles and arced away as the belly turrets fired.

“I want those top batteries laying fire before the next strafing run, Mister Chevket.”

“Aye, sir.” He turned to a bank of speaking tubes and relayed orders

The ornithopters disappeared overhead, and Beaumont straightened his back against the fear urging him to duck his head against a stray bullet making it through the bridge’s lightly-armored bulkheads. Cannons boomed above, then came the unmistakable sound of bullets ricocheting through the airframe.

“Helm, report,” Beaumont said.

Docks pulled at the control yoke. “Losing altitude, Captain. Compensating.”

Certainly one and perhaps two helium cells had been breached. The October Sky could stay aloft with such damage, provided they were repaired in time and no more were lost.

“The ‘thopters are splitting fore and aft,” Charles said.

A mistake, thought Beaumont.

“Turn us ten degrees into the wind, Mister Docks. Mister Chevket, direct the port batteries to focus fore, the starboard batteries aft. Let them try escaping our broadsides.”

A shudder ran through the deck, and the engines went silent. Beaumont grabbed the tube to the engine room.

“Engine room, bridge. Report.”

The distant, tinny voice of Mister Wallace came back.

“We’ve burnt out the deaders, engines inoperable.”

Beaumont bit back the ‘why’ and focused on what to do next.

“How long to repair?” He said.

“Five minutes, Captain.”

The fore and port batteries boomed.

“We don’t have that long, Mister Wallace, do better.”

“Aye, sir.”

The October Sky wavered as the helmsman fought to keep the craft oriented without the engine’s help. Mister Docks, deprived of the engine’s help, fought to keep the October Sky oriented with the rudder and elevators alone. The ornithoper before them spat fire from its nose as it dodged and weaved through the Sky’s cannonade. More fabric ripped, and Beaumont winced as he imagined the giant helium cells above him perforated and deflating.

The ornithopter pulled up in a tight loop, and exploded. A cheer went up on the bridge.

“One to go, gentlemen,” Beaumont said.

As if on cue, the aft and starboard batteries opened fire. Agent Ives ran to the mirrors pointed aft, but Beaumont didn’t bother. The airship’s frame blocked most of the view, the mirrors used mostly for monitoring the ground during landing.

“Damage report,” Beaumont said.

“Cells one, five, and six holed, but stable,” Arthas said. “Cell two lost.”

A howling built on the starboard side, building to a scream as the last ‘thopter streaked toward the bridge. Smoke streamed from the craft, and its pilot fought to keep it straight and level. The chin and belly turrets opened up, peppering the craft with near hits.

“Evasive Action!” Beaumont shouted, but he knew it was too late. Without engine power, they were an easy target. Bullets tore through the airframe, and the enemy ‘thoper did not break off. Perhaps it had lost the ability to turn.

“Emergency vent, sound collision alarm.” Beaumont said.

The October Sky plummeted as its helium cells opened. A klaxon blared over the last volleys from the turrets reached out to the corkscrewing enemy ‘thopter. The ‘thoper’s nose twinkled with twin flashes as its pilot sent a stream of bullets into the October Sky’s deflated envelope. Then it exploded as a shell hit it square-on. Shrapnel rained down on, hitting the October Sky’s airframe like nails on a tin roof.

“Close vents. Reserve bottles to full. Dump ballast.” Beaumont said. He glanced at the helmsman’s altimeter dial, spiraling down to zero. He didn’t believe for a moment the craft would avoid crashing, it was just a matter of how hard. The impact came without warning, a giant’s hand that threw him against his seat restraints. The envelope’s frame groaned, and the giant’s hand threw them in the air.

“We’re bouncing like a toy ball, Captain,” said Arthas.

“Trim out the cells, and make ready the landing hooks, Mister Chevket. I want the ship secured on our next bounce.”

As the ground came to meet them, lines fired from pneumatic launchers. The October Sky crashed into the rocks, kicking up sparks in the gloom. The ship bounced and shuddered as the mooring augers and grapnels dug in among the rocks. When the October Sky settled to the ground, Captain Beaumont unbuckled his restraints and looked around the bridge.

“Well done, lads. Let’s see what’s left of her.”

Agent Ives stumbled up from the navigation table, pale but glowering. He seemed to catch himself, and regained a semblance of composure.

“Good job, Captain,” he said.

Beaumont nodded to the council’s man and extended an arm to the bridge ladder. “After you, sir.”

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