The Forever Engine – Snippet 34


October 8/9, 1888,

Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,

Aloft over Turkish Bosnia

Intrepid shuddered and side-slipped as she pushed through the darkness, rain lashing her deck and superstructure. The weather front which pursued us the previous day overtook us not long after we began our night run into Bosnia. It could hardly have missed us once we’d started heading southwest instead of southeast.

Two trimsmen wrestled with the forest of levers at the back of Intrepid‘s wheelhouse, fighting the turbulence which rocked the flyer, each change in deck angle altering the power and balance of the liftwood louvers deep in the hull. I had thought this massive steel flyer would be immune to the effects of weather, at least compared to a hydrogen-filled dirigible. I was wrong.

“Try to hold her steady, Wickers, there’s a good fellow,” Captain Harding ordered.

“Aye, aye, sir,” the senior trimsman answered, strain apparent in his voice.

“Wouldn’t do to come this far just to fly into a mountain,” the captain added.

For a moment the bridge was as bright as noon, the sky to starboard filed with a dozen branching, broken lances of raw electricity, and I jumped despite myself. The sizzling crack and rolling roar of thunder came immediately afterwards.

“Damn me!” Gordon said beside me.

Captain Harding smiled, but it was a calculated, tightly controlled smile.

“Compass house reports two degree drift to starboard,” Lieutenant Jenkins reported from the bank of speaking tubes connecting the bridge to the rest of the ship.

“Helm, come two degrees to port and steady back on one seven zero,” Harding ordered.

“Two degrees to port. Waiting to steady on one seven zero,” the helmsman answered.

“With a sluggish bridge compass and all this gusting wind, our analytic engine isn’t much good to us,” Harding told Gordon and me. “Just the night for some good old-fashioned navigation, wouldn’t you say so, Mr. Jenkins?”

“As you say, sir,” the lieutenant answered absentmindedly, his attention on the speaking tubes and the bridge compass.

Beside me Gordon tried to look nonchalant, but I could smell the fear on him through his own rain gear. He clasped his hands behind his back, I figured to keep from fidgeting, but the desire to do something — pace, drum his fingers, tap his foot — was so powerful I could almost feel it, as if he were an overwound clock ready to fly apart.

“How close would you say we were to our course, Mr. Jenkins?” Captain Harding asked. Jenkins licked his lips and thought for a moment before answering.

“I’d say we’re a good twenty cables downwind of our course.”

“Twenty cables? Really? Well, that would put us into a mountainside if we try to come down. I don’t think we’ve surrendered that much ground, though. Let’s drop down and see if we can find this river.”

“Sir, we’re still well short of ViÅ¡egràd. No need to –”

“Take us down, Mr. Jenkins. Light the bow searchlight. May as well see what we’re flying into.”

“Aye, aye, sir. Trimsman, two percent negative buoyancy. Bosun, bow light on, twenty degree down angle.”

A petty officer closed the collar of his oilskin slicker and ducked out into the rain, then slid down the companionway to the main deck.

“How long is a cable? Do you know?” I asked Gordon, more to make conversation than because I really wanted to know.

He looked at me, eyes moving quickly from side to side like a cornered animal. Confusion, irritation, panic, all played across his face in less than a second, and then he took a breath and was under control.

“Two hundred yards.”

Twenty cables times two hundred yards — Jenkins was saying we were more than two miles off our projected course. That was more than enough to put us out of the river valley and over the mountains.

“How does the glass read, Mr. Jenkins?” the captain asked.

“Five hundred fifty fathoms and dropping, sir. Now five forty.”

“The tallest mountain peaks around here are twenty-seven hundred feet. Close enough to five hundred fathoms. We’ll know soon enough which of us is the better navigator, eh, Jenkins?”

“As you say, sir.”

“Of course with this storm the glass is running low anyway, so we’re a few fathoms above the read. Nothing to worry about for a few more minutes, anyway. Who’s for a nip?”

He took a flask out of his coat pocket and held it out toward Gordon and myself.

“I’m not too proud,” Gordon said and took the flask.

“I’ve noticed that about you,” Captain Harding said.

Gordon paused for a moment, the flask in his hand, and as he did the bridge exploded in light around us and another latticework of lightning filled the window behind Harding, backlighting him. This time I didn’t jump.

Gordon handed him back the flask.

“Changed my mind.”

“Particular about your whiskey, are you?” Harding asked.

“Just who I drink it with.”

Harding laughed, then offered the flask to me. I took it and sipped — Irish, like Reggie Llewellyn always carried. I thought about Reggie, what he’d make of all this, but the truth was I never really knew what was going on inside his head. Still, he’d been a friend, whatever that had meant to him, and it had meant something. I remembered his regiment’s motto and lifted the flask as a toast.

“Who dares, wins.”

I drank again.

“If so, we’re on the road to glory tonight,” Harding answered as he took back the flask. “Bad as this weather is, I wouldn’t count on much support from us once we drop you off. Barring mishap we’ll make the run back to Ujvidék by morning, but I think it better we sit out any more of this weather. No point in tempting fate too often.”

In other words, once he landed us we were on our own and good riddance. Ever since the dinner that first night out of Munich, Harding’s attitude had soured. There had been traces of his contempt for Gordon earlier, but now it had deepened and broadened, including Gabrielle and myself as well. Mostly I’d tried to just stay out of his way.

“Corporal O’Mara has been singing your praises to anyone willing to listen, Fargo,” Harding went on. “I’ve decided to send his section along with you, if there are no objections.”

“Ask Captain Gordon. He’s in command.”

“Of course he is. Captain Gordon, will that be acceptable to you, sir?” he asked with mocking courtesy.

“Yes,” Gordon answered.

O’Mara had been “singing my praises,” but he didn’t have much good to say about Gordon, so that could be a problem for him, and I was sure Harding knew that when he made the call.

Harding was navy, Gordon army. Harding’s naval rank of captain was the equivalent of an army colonel, so he outranked Gordon by three pay grades, but Gordon was in charge of the expedition. Maybe that wasn’t sitting well. Corporal O’Mara was in Harding’s crew, but now the Marine couldn’t stop talking about the American with the pipe. On this ship I had the feeling there was room for only one hero, and Gabrielle’s humiliation of him at dinner that first night had been the last straw.

So Harding would take care of his ship and get some payback for what happened to his men and maybe rid himself of a “disloyal” Marine, but as far as our mission went, we could pound sand for all he cared — inter-service rivalry and personal jealousy trumping everything else. I’d come back over a hundred years and to a different world or reality or whatever the hell it was just to find the same old bullshit.