The Forever Engine – Snippet 22
October 4, 1888,
Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,
Landed Near Kempten, Bavaria
We hadn’t tipped over. We were grounded in a meadow while damage-control parties swarmed over the ship. I sat with my back to the wall and watched the activity in the wheelhouse. They had at least swept up the broken glass but several broad smears of blood, red turning to brown, told the story of our brief, disastrous encounter. I didn’t help the naval ratings clear away the debris. My knees felt too weak to support me, although I knew from experience that if they had to, they would. Captain Harding, head swathed in a bloody bandage, sat in a chair pulled into the wheelhouse from the chart room, while an officer reported on the damage.
“Both boilers punctured, but Mr. Clyde says he has number one patched with steam up and can have pressure in number two inside of an hour. Starboard airscrew lost, and the port airscrew shaft is bent. Mr. Clyde recommends remounting the port screw on the starboard shaft and says he can give you twelve knots once the work is done. Rudder is jammed amidships, but he doesn’t expect a problem freeing it. He can jury-rig the screw in three hours and perhaps make temporary repairs on the boilers, but he would rather spend the night doing the job right.”
“Casualties?” Harding asked.
“Lieutenant Longchamps and two ratings dead, yourself and six ratings injured. Dr. Bay says Leading Trimsman O’Donnell will lose the arm, sir.”
“What about Mademoiselle Courbiere?” I asked. The officer looked to me.
“Uninjured, sir. The attack distressed her, but she seems quite calm now, all things considered. I was afraid she might become hysterical.”
“Never mind that,” Harding snapped. “What about our armament?”
“Starboard sponson frozen in place with the gun locked at maximum depression. Z turret totally destroyed. We’ll need major dry-dock work to replace it. All secondary armament serviceable, sir.”
“They spiked your aft turret,” I said.
“I am quite aware of that, Mr. Fargo,” Harding said, turning his sour gaze on me. “The question is how they did it, and why.”
“No, when I said spiked, I meant it. That was a Spike antitank missile they fired at you, built either by Raphael or EuroSpike. What the hell it was doing here is a different matter.”
“And that damned gun?” he asked. “It fired faster than a Hotchkiss one-pounder revolver but cut through our armor as if it were mere sheet metal.”
“I’m pretty sure it was a Rhinemetal thirty-millimeter Maschinenkanone, probably firing sabot rounds.”
Harding looked from me to Thomson, who leaned against the wall of the wheelhouse and mopped the perspiration from his flushed face. “Thomson, do you have any idea what this fellow is talking about?”
“Yes, I do. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I cannot explain further at the moment. All I can say is you should listen carefully to whatever he can tell you about the capabilities of these weapons.”
Gordon entered the wheelhouse, looking around at the damage. I wondered where he’d been through all of this and spotted the blood dried on his hands.
“You hurt, Gordon?” I asked.
He looked at me wordlessly, as if unsure what I meant, and then raised his hands slowly and examined therm. That slow-motion movement was a pretty good sign of someone coming out of shock.
“No. I’m all right. Someone else’s.”
My own right hand was bandaged. I’d cut it scooping up glass to throw at Conroy, but I hadn’t felt the cut at the time. It hadn’t even started bleeding until after things settled down. That was typical, too.
“Why didn’t they finish us off when they had the chance?” Thomson asked.
“Turning radius,” Harding answered. “They couldn’t fire directly astern because of their own airscrews and would have to swing wide to turn back on us, which would give either our broadside mounts or the port sponson a clear shot. Too dangerous with that great hydrogen bag as a target. They couldn’t know we weren’t at action stations. What I want to know is why the damned Germans are shooting at us.”
“It’s not the Germans,” I said. “At least I don’t think so. There were no markings on the zeppelin. This smells of an ambush, maybe by the fellow we’re looking for.”
“Well, we’ll make repairs here overnight and then try to make Munich in the morning. I hope to God you’re right about the Germans, Fargo. We’re damned near helpless with one screw, a leaky boiler, and half our main guns out of battery.”
“There’s still the matter of our mission,” I said. “We have to examine the incident site.”
“Out of the question,” Harding said, shaking his head vigorously. “My first responsibility is my vessel.”
I looked to Thomson, but he just shrugged helplessly. Gordon had a thousand-yard stare that said his mind was still half an hour back in time.
“If we can get to the incident site on our own, will you wait for us?” I asked.
Harding frowned. “Can’t imagine how you’ll manage that, but if there’s no sign of hostility from the Germans, I’ll wait the night and the day tomorrow.”
“Smoke on the horizon,” the lookout above the wheelhouse called, “nor’ by nor’-west, three smudges.”
“Those German landships we passed yesterday,” Harding said. “If you’re wrong, Fargo, they’ll shoot us to scrap metal here on the ground.”
“Yeah, but if I’m right, they’re our ride.”
“What do you make of it, lad?” Thomson asked.
I walked around the vehicle, assessing the damage and trying to envision what that fiery moment of transition from my time back to this one had been like. No fun, that’s for sure; five fresh graves in the meadow forty yards away bore mute testimony to that.
In some ways it reminded me of the Somerton site we’d looked at earlier, although the impact area was much smaller here. It had that same look of part of one world exchanged with another, and the topography didn’t quite line up. WHECOL hadn’t been at Somerton, so the shift in time had brought a slight shift in location as well. Here it looked as though the vehicle and a chunk of the surrounding ground had appeared above the surface of the meadow and just fallen onto it. A lot of the surrounding grass was burnt but I wasn’t sure if that was from the event itself or a secondary fire afterwards. One side of the vehicle was blackened, and the rear fuel cell had been compromised.
Compromised. Boy, that was a polite word for what had happened. The back two or three feet of the vehicle just weren’t there any more, leaving the interior open to the morning sunlight. The edges weren’t cleanly cut, as I’d expected them to be, but looked as if they had been melted by a broad-flamed cutting torch. Hard threads of steel hung like shining silver spittle from the yawning improvised mouth, and severed caterpillar tracks lay in twisted heaps around the broken vehicle like spilled entrails.
The circular hole in the top, letting more sunlight in, showed no evidence of violence. The entire remote turret assembly had been carefully removed. That much I’d suspected, as I’d seen it yesterday on the black zeppelin. I wondered how they powered it. My curiosity piqued, I walked around front, lifted the engine access hatch, and looked into an empty engine compartment. Whoever they were, these guys hadn’t missed a trick.