The Forever Engine – Snippet 17
Conroy exchanged a look with the other officers and Thomson cleared his throat before he spoke.
“I imagine Captain Gordon is still abed. He had quite an evening.”
The three of us had eaten in the small officers’ mess, but I’d left right after dinner and turned in early. In the week we’d spent in England getting ready to leave, I’d gotten back in the habit of rising before dawn and running. This morning I’d taken my run on Intrepid‘s deck, round and round the superstructure. Two miles before breakfast had done wonders for my attitude. But by the time I’d left the officers’ mess the night before Gordon had been tipsy, and was still going strong.
“Well he’s got ten hours to sleep it off before we land in Munich and find out what the Bavarians know,” Harding said. “Do you suppose the young gentleman can be persuaded to rise before sunset?”
Damn. Munich in ten hours? The stately progress of the flyer had lulled me into a false sense of complacency. There would be things I would have to do, things I never thought I’d do again, things I dreaded doing, but would have to do. I needed to get my head squared away about that, and time was running out.
I had a mental checklist I’d been making. Gordon wasn’t on it. If Gordon couldn’t make the world safe for Bonseller and Lord Chillingham’s England, it was no skin off my ass. If I managed to do what needed doing, that England wasn’t going to be around much longer anyway.
It wasn’t my world. It would sure as hell take more than one pretty sunset to make it so.
Nine hours later we dropped down through the scattered clouds to find the Bavarian countryside below us, afternoon sunlight sparkling off the rivers and making the wooded hills and fields spreading out to either side seem to glow with life. The snow-peaked Alps rose to our right above nearly invisible clouds on the horizon and, like Intrepid, seemed to float impossibly in the air. The ground was higher and wilder looking to the south, and the rivers, a series of them perpendicular to our path like successive finish lines, flowed north to feed the Danube for its long journey east.
Thomson and I stood on the open flying bridge beside the wheelhouse. He pointed out three moving shapes far below us and handed me a pair of binoculars. The objects were some sort of powered land vehicles, with caterpillar tracks as near as I could tell, and enclosed. Big, too, about the size of locomotives, but they moved across open ground, not on railroad tracks. They each sported a few gun mounts.
“What the hell?”
“Imperial German land ships,” Thomson answered, “moving south. Quite formidable. Odd to see them on Bavarian soil — although Bavaria is part of the empire, of course, especially since the old king was deposed.”
“Good heavens, no! The Kaiser is secure, but Bavaria — its place in the German empire is ambiguous. It is a kingdom within the empire, more than a province but not exactly sovereign. Its foreign policy is directed from Prussia, but its heart, I think, is still with Austria. The old king, Ludwig, was mad and his brother Otto, the new one, is worse, but this Luitpold fellow, the prince regent, actually runs things now. He seems levelheaded enough. I don’t envy him his job.”
“So we’re getting help from whom? Germans? Prussians? Bavarians?”
“Yes,” Thomson answered and laughed. “General Buller’s contacts were through the German General Staff in Berlin, but the Bavarian Stadtpolizei have jurisdiction over the incident site. They’ll assist us, under instruction from Berlin.”
“How happy are they going to be about that?”
“We’ll see soon enough,” he answered.
Maybe the maneuvering Prussian land ships were meant as a reminder to the locals of who was in charge. Maybe not. I gestured down toward them, now well astern.
“Reinforcements?” I asked. Thomson’s eyebrows went up in surprise at that but then settled back as he thought it over. He was a scientist and viewed this as a fact-finding mission. I don’t think it had occurred to him until then that we might have to fight for information, or that the Germans might have anticipated something like that and were getting ready to back us up. Intrepid might be useful to us for something other than its speed.
Ahead of us I saw the dark mass of a city — Munich. While smoke rose from countless chimneys, it was nothing like the oppressive industrial smog of London. Dozens of multicolored balloons, some spherical, some sausage-shaped, floated above and near the city. As the clouds drifted and the sun setting behind us touched the distant city, a thousand windows reflected the light and sparkled like diamonds.
“I hear it has come back to life since the old king was deposed,” Thomson said from beside me. “Like a fairy city, isn’t it?”
It was. In the distance I saw a light on the outskirts of the city flickering with particular brilliance and regularity. When it paused, I heard a loud clacking from above us, on the catwalk above the flyer’s bridge. A crewman manned a large searchlight with louvered metal shutters, and as he worked the lever controls the shutters opened and closed, flashing light back to the city.
“Aldis lamp,” Thomson explained. After several more exchanges, the signalman slid down the ladder and disappeared into the bridge. Ten minutes later Captain Harding joined us and handed Thomson a message form.
“It came in my personal code,” Harding said.
Thomson read the note, and his eyebrows went up a bit.
“I didn’t know he was in Bavaria,” he said.
“He was supposed to be in Italy, last I heard,” Harding replied.
“Who?” I asked.
Thomson folded the message and put it in his coat pocket before answering me.
“We will see the Bavarian police tomorrow, but tonight we are to meet with Baron Renfrew in Munich. Baron Renfrew is –”
“Yeah,” I interrupted. “I know who Baron Renfrew is.”
“You do?” Thomson said. “Extraordinary.”
“I’m just full of surprises.”
Baron Renfrew! Now, this was an interesting development, but not a very cheery one. I’d never even heard of Lord Chillingham, and my brief meeting with him had left a bad taste in my mouth. Renfrew . . .