The Forever Engine – Snippet 16



October 3, 1888,

Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,

Aloft Over the Franco-Belgian Border

“We cruise at twenty knots,” Captain Harding, Intrepid’s skipper, told me the next morning. We stood together in the wheelhouse and shaded our eyes from the glare of the sun rising almost directly ahead of us. Twenty knots, at two thousand yards to the nautical mile, put our speed at about twenty-two or twenty-three miles an hour. It felt as if we were hardly moving at all.

“We can keep this speed up day in, day out, for a week,” Harding went on. “There is very little vibration from her machinery. My first aerial command was Uxbridge, a Macefield-class gunboat based out of Alexandria. She’d do thirty-three knots, if you coaxed her and had the engineer sit on her safety valve, but she’d vibrate and shake to beat the devil. Bucked like a whore.”

The petty officer helmsman beside us grinned at that.

“It’s true,” Harding insisted. “Ride her too hard and she’d start leaking steam everywhere. Not the whore, mind you.”

“Smoke off the starboard quarter,” one of the lookouts called from the masthead above us. “Twenty degrees high.”

Harding raised his binoculars and scanned the sky.

“Mr. Conroy, what do you make of her?”

Ensign Conroy, the young officer of the watch, raised his own glasses.

“Converging course, sir, making . . . I’d say fifteen knots. Three stacks, turrets fore, aft, and ventral — I make her Invincible, sir.”

He pronounced it as a French name, however, not English. On-ven-SEEB-luh.

“Close,” Harding agreed, “But Invincible’s been shifted to the Pacific. That’s her sister, Gloire, as sure as there’s a hole in your backside. We’ll pass close enough to exchange honors. I believe we’ll go to action stations, Mr. Conroy.”

“Action stations, sir,” Conroy repeated. He pressed a red-painted lever near the engine telegraph and five bells sounded in rapid succession, followed by several seconds of silence, then five bells again.

Crew members boiled from hatches and scrambled to man the open gun mounts. The twenty red-coated marines formed in two ranks on the superstructure, and another officer climbed the steps to the wheelhouse. After a few minutes, Thomson joined us as well.

“Well, this is exciting!” he said, still puffing from the climb up the companionway to the bridge. “Another flyer, I see. We aren’t expecting trouble, are we?”

“No trouble,” Captain Harding answered. “Just a French cruiser, and we’ll pass close enough to smell the garlic. Trimsman.”

“Aye, sir?” a petty officer at the rear of the wheelhouse answered.

“Let’s bring her up even with the Frog. Ten percent positive buoyancy.”

“Ten percent positive buoyancy, aye, aye, Captain.” The petty officer stood before a double bank of tall levers, about twenty of them in each row. He released the hand brakes on two of the levers and pulled them back slightly, then locked them, waited, and adjusted two more. I felt the deck tilt very slightly up toward the bow then level again and for a moment I felt slightly heavier.

“Holding at ten percent positive buoyancy, sir,” he reported after a few seconds.

“What’s the glass read, Mr. Conroy?” Harding asked.

“Four-twenty, Captain.”

“Very well. We’ll come up to five hundred fathoms and level there,” Harding said.

“Aye, sir. Level at five hundred fathoms.”

At six feet to the fathom, that would put us at three thousand feet, about a kilometer — not very high for a jumbo jet, but plenty high for a thousand-ton ironclad.

I could pick out more detail on the French flyer now, even without binoculars. It had a different look from Intrepid. Its turrets sat higher in front, and it didn’t seem to have much deck forward. With an under-slung gun turret aft, like a bomber’s belly turret, its profile looked a little more like an aircraft than a flying ship, but only a little. I never saw an airplane with three smokestacks.

“Coming up on five hundred fathoms, Captain,” Ensign Conroy reported.

“Very well. Trimsman, neutral buoyancy.”

The petty officer made more adjustments to the forest of levers, studied his spirit levels and plum line, and then adjusted one more.

“Ship neutral, Captain.”

We had drawn closer to the French ship, and it slowly changed course to parallel ours. As we were moving faster, we would overtake the other aerial cruiser and pass it in a few minutes. I could make out her flags; a large tricolor flew from the mainmast amidships, and a blood-red ensign fluttered from the stern.

“She’ll follow us for a while, but we’re coming up on Saarbrüchen in a quarter hour. She’ll turn back for home rather than go deep into German air space,” Harding declared.

“Is that red flag some sort of naval ensign?” I asked.

Harding snorted.

“Not by a long shot. She’s flown by La Garde Rouge, the Commune’s pet bully boys.”

“The Commune?” I repeated.

“Mr. Fargo is not conversant with recent European political history,” Thomson explained. “He’s from . . . the west.” He turned to me. “The Commune took control of the French government in 1871, during the war with Germany.”

“You’re a cowboy, Mr. Fargo?” Harding asked. “You must be a cowboy who lives in a bloody cave if you’ve never heard of the Commune.”

Right, the Paris Commune. But in my world it had lasted — what? — a couple weeks?

La Garde Rouge — the Red Guard. I wondered how “red” those French really were. Wasn’t Karl Marx still wandering around somewhere?

“No shooting today, though, right?” I asked.

Harding turned and looked at me for a moment before answering.

“No, Mr. Fargo, not since ’85. The politicians will yammer a while longer before we start shooting at them again. Soon enough, though, I’ll wager.”

He turned back ahead, and in a couple minutes we passed abeam of the French cruiser, close enough that I could see the expressions on the French officers as they returned the salutes of our officers — proper but unsmiling. There was as much recognition over there as there was here that the next time they saw each other it might be through powder smoke and across a bloodstained deck.

That might explain why we were getting so much help from the Germans — nothing like a common enemy to make the children play well together.

I looked around the wheelhouse.

“Where’s Gordon?”