The Forever Engine – Snippet 29
October 7, 1888, Munich, Bavaria
I’d taken a real beating in front of the hotel, and I didn’t understand how much until the next morning. We’d moved back over to Intrepid for security, and I shared a stateroom with Gordon. Fortunately he took the upper bunk. When I woke, I couldn’t sit up in bed. I had to roll over onto my stomach, flop my legs off the bed onto the deck, push myself upright on my knees, and then stand up using the headboard for support. I felt as if I wore weights on my arms and legs, every joint was full of acid, and a couple key muscles just weren’t present for duty. Unfortunately, calling in sick wasn’t an option. My head was clear, so at least there was probably no brain damage.
My morning run was out, and I’d have liked another hour of sleep, but Harding had planned a service for the crew members of Intrepid who had been killed the previous day and in the first fight with the zeppelin. I wanted to attend. Gordon and I walked over together in silence, each with our own thoughts, under steel-gray skies that smelled of rain.
Gordon had come up with a plan yesterday which had the virtue of simplicity and directness but took those qualities to a dangerous extreme, in my opinion. Maybe he was trying to prove he wasn’t the coward so many people thought he was. Fine, but he could do that on his own time. This put the whole mission at risk. More to the point for me, if Tesla was the key to getting me back to my own world, I didn’t think shooting our way into his stronghold with a thousand Turkish infantry was the approach most likely to gain his cooperation. What would work with a megalomaniac who sent drugged-up fanatics and wind-up spiders across Europe to murder people who pissed him off was another question.
My problems weren’t Gordon’s, of course, nor were they Lord Chillingham’s or the British crown’s. As far as they were concerned, I was baggage and bait — annoying baggage and bait in Gordon’s view. Any suggestions I made to him were likely to send him in the opposite direction, but we would meet with the Bavarians again after the funeral service. Hopefully somebody at the meeting would do my dirty work for me.
I’d been to two British military funerals in Afghanistan. This one was the largest, at least in terms of casualties: eighteen of them. That was a big hole knocked in a crew of only two hundred.
The bodies were sewn into white sacks made of sail canvas. They must have carried the canvas just for that purpose — Intrepid didn’t mount sails. There weren’t enough Union Jacks to cover all the bodies, so some were covered with white naval ensigns and some by simple bedsheets. All the covers — flags and sheets alike — were wrapped around the body bags and tucked under them to keep them from blowing off in the damp breeze. The bags were lined up in two rows of eight and then two others out front. That would be Lieutenant Longchamps and Ensign Conroy, the two officer casualties, leading the formation.
A company of Bavarian soldiers stood to one side of the arrayed bodies, the crew of Intrepid to the other, and an assortment of civilian workers from the Fliegerplatz made a ragged crescent between them, forming the bottom of a box protecting the silent dead. A line of Bavarian horse-drawn artillery caissons waited behind them to take the bodies to the military cemetery. Three Bavarian drummers, their drums muffled, provided the only music. An enclosed carriage arrived, and two passengers joined the officers of Intrepid: Gabrielle Courbiere and a tall, stout man dressed in black, complete with a black silk scarf over his face.
Harding stood before the company and began with the opening prayer.
“Loving God, you alone are the source of life. May your life-giving Spirit flow through us, and fill us with compassion, one for another. In our sorrow give us the calm of your peace. Kindle our hope, and let our grief give way to joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The incongruity, the palpable unreality of the moment, washed over me like a cold wave. The South had won the Civil War, the Royal Navy had flying ironclads, there were colonies on Mars, but the Book of Common Prayer hadn’t changed. What were the odds? But there was nothing unreal about the eighteen silent white sausages lying on the dark green grass of the landing ground.
We again met in Intrepid’s chart room, a more somber group this time, the cause made obvious by Thomson’s absence. His place was taken by a young officer in the light blue uniform of the Bavarian Army, complete with dueling scar on his cheek and spiked helmet held under his arm.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. Too many damned meetings. It was time to get on with it, to just saddle up and go after these guys. That’s not how it worked here. That’s not how it worked anywhere except the movies. If it wasn’t a meeting with the Bavarian police and army, it was tea with the Afghan village elders to see what they thought we should do next, not because we gave a shit what they thought, but because it made them feel better, for a while, to think we might.
“Captain Harding, what is Intrepid‘s status?” Gordon asked.
“Short-handed but ready for action. Those blasted clockwork spiders killed one of my officers — young Conroy — and fourteen crewmen. I have six more still incapacitated, but there’s no additional damage to her machinery.
“My position has been rendered somewhat complicated by other developments, however. As I am sure you all understand, the safety of the Royal Family is our paramount consideration. It should be obvious we have taken on board a special passenger. This afternoon we will lift off with a heading toward the British Isles.”
“You will be returning to England?” Gordon asked.
“I did not say that,” Harding answered. “What is important is that we be seen to leave with a heading toward England.”
“Elvis has left the building,” I said.
Everyone looked at me blankly.
“Renfrew has already left Munich,” I explained. “This is a diversion. Who was that dressed up like him at the funeral?”
“Very good, Mr. Fargo,” Harding said. “It was one of our black gang. He was the only one in the crew large enough to be convincing. A closed car was added to the morning train to Frankfurt.”
“He was on that?” I asked.
“Perhaps,” Harding said. “I don’t know, to be honest. What I do know is that I also received coded orders this morning via cable through our consulate here, instructing me, once our diversionary demonstration is complete, to support your mission, which of course we will. The entire crew is anxious to strike back at those villains — cowardly bastards, leaving their dirty business to machines.”
“What are your rules of engagement?” I asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What limits are placed on your actions?”
“Ah, yes. I am not to hazard my vessel beyond what I believe necessary to support the mission, a pretty way of saying if things go wrong it’s my head on the chopping block. Well, so be it. More importantly I am under no circumstances to provoke hostilities with a foreign power. In this case that means I cannot enter Serbia, Rumania, or Bulgaria. I can send a small Marine landing party with you, but not in uniform. We do have permission to enter Austro-Hungarian and Turkish territory, however, and have promises of cooperation from those governments.”
I had mixed feelings about that. Clearing things with the Austrians and Turks was probably necessary, but a lot of people knew a lot of stuff about this “secret” mission.