The Forever Engine – Snippet 26


October 6, 1888, Munich, Bavaria

I rose early, my head throbbing from too much beer the night before and too much bizarre science. I left the hotel in my improvised running clothes and began jogging under a pale pinkie-gray sky that promised another glorious autumn day. Only a few clouds drifted overhead, and the heavy dew would vanish like magic as soon as the sun showed itself.

I had the streets almost to myself. Down the block a solitary milk wagon made its way, four young boys running back and forth from the open sides to front steps, delivering tin jugs of milk and boxes of butter, panting to keep up as the wagon made steady progress down the street. Another block away I saw a carnival wagon, maybe an early departure from the fair. Other than that, everyone was sleeping it off.

I ran it off instead. I had things to do, a body that wasn’t ready to do them, and not enough time, so I ran even though I would rather have rolled over and drifted back into my erotic dream of Gabrielle Courbiere. I might have done so anyway if I hadn’t had to pee.

Besides, the dream had become disturbing. She had undressed, and under the black riding habit she was a robot — a shapely robot, like out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but a robot nonetheless — and it hadn’t bothered dream-me. In fact, dream-me was part robot, too. What the hell did that mean?

So I ran. I ran to purge my body of toxins, to harden it for the coming trials, and to scourge it for my sins. I ran to forget unbidden dreams, and I ran to think, to make sense of the inexplicable — trips to Mars on gossamer wings!

Our hotel was a couple blocks south of the Fliegerplatz. Despite the cool morning I’d worked up a good sweat by the time I rounded the corner onto Landsberger Strasse and the Fliegerplatz came into view. I jogged east now, toward the red pre-dawn, with the Fliegerplatz to my left. Not much stirred except for a smallish dirigible ahead of me, descending for a landing from the east. I watched it glide almost silently across the Landsberger Strasse, nearly brushing the uplifted branches of the chestnuts and oaks and I felt the adrenaline surge as I saw its unmarked black sides. I watched helplessly as it passed directly over the bulk of Intrepid, dark and silent on its tie-down pad, and as it passed over I saw a shower of small objects cascade from the dirigible onto the British cruiser. The explosions were small, but there were many of them, crackling like fireworks, all mixed up with the shouts of alarm from the sailors on early watch and the chiming of action stations, all of the sounds soft and distant, not at all like genuine danger.

The dirigible did not land; its engines increased in volume as it climbed and turned to port, toward me, and it began making smoke — thick, oily black smoke, escaping in almost solid coils from the back of its enclosed cabin. I knew instantly it wasn’t turning toward me; it was turning toward the hotel.

I sprinted back south across the broad boulevard and into an alleyway. The hotel was three blocks south and four west. My lungs burned for air by the time I reached the end of the alley, but I didn’t let up. As I raced across the street, I glanced left. The dirigible cleared the roofs, coming diagonally toward me, no more than a hundred meters away. They’d see me, but from up there I’d just look like some local yokel running in panic.

That wasn’t far wrong. I upped the speed, put everything I had into it, legs pounding like pistons, my heart feeling as if it were about to explode, and with no idea what I’d do when I got there. Warn them! my brain screamed.

The dirigible was going to get there before me. A warning was going to be too late, unless the dirigible had to mess around for a while trying to land. Think!

The hotel was on another broad east-west boulevard, Agnes-Bernauer Strasse. They’d have plenty of room to land the dirigible there, but they’d also see me coming from a long way if I went there and turned right.

At the next corner, a block short of Agnes-Bernauer, I turned right. My breath came in ragged gasps, the shadow of the dirigible passed over me, I felt a tingle in my scalp and up my spine, and then suddenly I had my second wind. Adrenaline is a marvelous thing. Behind me I heard the report of a large naval gun. Somebody on Intrepid had found a better way to sound the alarm than ringing a bell.

By the time I’d run the four short blocks west and turned into the alleyway, the dirigible had disappeared below the roof line ahead of me and its engines softened to idle. Smoke smelling of fuel oil settled into the streets and alleyways around me. Through the drifting smoke I saw the zeppelin now, or at least a very short segment of it between the buildings at the end of the alley, hovering twenty or more feet above the pavement. A rusty one-meter length of inch-and-a-half iron pipe lay against a trash can, and I picked it up as I jogged down the alley.

I paused at the end to catch my breath and get my heart rate under control. As I did so, I felt the familiar darkness tease at the edges of my vision. I did not fight it this time. I surrendered to it.

I looked cautiously around the corner, across and slightly down the street toward the hotel. Half a dozen ropes hung down from the dirigible, and several men on the ground held on to them, holding the airship in place against a soft breeze from the west, my right. None of them looked armed, and their attention was directed upward. The engine noise was louder out in the street. The carnival wagon I’d seen earlier was parked in front of the hotel, and as I watched, four men hustled Thomson, still in his nightshirt, down the front steps.

I took four or five long, fast strides out into the street and swung the pipe with both hands. The first man holding the rope never saw or heard me coming, and when the pipe cracked the back of his skull he went down like two hundred pounds of dead weight. The man beside him holding the same line started to turn toward me, his face distorted in horror, and the pipe crushed his left elbow, then his ribs, then his hip in three quick blows, and he was down.

The pipe felt good in my hands, balanced and lethal, as I ran toward the second group of linemen.

One of them saw the scuffle and alerted his partner. They let the rope go, and the first one drew a sheath knife from his belt. He held it up, as if to guard against me. I swung the pipe, and he made to duck it, stepping sideways. He ran into the other lineman, stumbled, and the pipe hit, driving the two of them to the pavement in a shower of the first one’s blood and teeth.

The buoyancy of the dirigible changed and tugged the remaining linemen up, pulling their feet off the ground for a moment before they came back down. They literally had their hands full, so I ignored them and ran toward the men holding Thomson. The linemen were in dark uniforms, but these four were dressed in bright colors. Of course — the circus wagon — a pretty good cover for guys moving around early in the morning.

I heard a gunshot from above and behind me, felt a momentary burning sensation in my left shoulder, but the pain went as quickly as it had come. I was running fast, and the dirigible was bobbing. I’d have to be damned unlucky to get hit by another aimed shot before I got to the kidnappers.

Thomson’s face lit up when he saw me. One man held the old Scotsman’s arms behind his back, and the other three stepped forward to meet me, knives drawn. Fortunately none of them were packing pistols or this might have been a short fight. I shifted my grip on the pipe, held it like a short quarterstaff.

The first man lunged for me. I broke his wrist with a downward chop of the left end of the pipe and then took him down with a sharp right cross to the head. The other two went wide to either side of me. The quarterstaff grip was a mistake, wouldn’t let me keep these two at a distance, and now I needed to fight for time. Police, the army, somebody had to be on their way to find out what the ruckus was all about.

I let the pipe slide back into a kendo grip. I launched an overhead swing at one attacker, followed him and swung again as he gave ground. Then I spun and swung from the shoulder at the other attacker, who I sensed, who I knew, was closing in on me from behind. He raised his arm to block the blow, and it made a sound like a stick of celery snapping when the pipe hit it. The man, face distorted in pain and broken left arm dangling limp at his side, started to back up, but not quickly enough. I swung again and he went down forever.

I turned back to the remaining thug, but he backed quickly down the sidewalk away from me. I looked to Thomson, but more men now crowded out of the hotel, some in the dark dirigible uniforms, some dressed like carnies—too many of them, and a couple had revolvers.

Kein Schiessen!” I yelled at them. “Ich bin Fargo. Der Alte Mann wunscht mich lebendig.”

Don’t shoot. I’m Fargo. The Old Man wants me alive.

They hesitated; the barrels of the pistols dropped.

I raised the pipe above my head and charged.