The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 3, In Which Matters Appear Bleak, As Usual

                “And before you ask, Miss Wesley,” Colonel Stuart Mallet added, “it isn’t a farmer aiming a shotgun at us this time.” He winked at me, to my amazement, and disappeared up the stairway.

                The Hephaestus was not built for maneuverability—indeed there had never before been a reason for the ship to possess evasive capability—but the combined wills of The Engineer and Granito Urantu made up for that lack. I could almost see The Engineer, in the moments he could spare from his labors, redesigning the ship in his head to cope with this new challenge.

                The view through the single forward window of the ship was not encouraging. Beyond the tapering, graceful prow of the airship—constructed in such a manner as to more readily detect and follow ley lines—a dark roiling mist with more substance than the clouds surrounding it obscured our attacker. Evidently the enemy had no difficulty seeing the Hephaestus, for as I watched, two bursts of coherent light split the mist, momentarily blinding me and sending me reeling with their impact on the hull.

                Luli’s grip on my arm was surprisingly strong as she pulled me away from the window. “Colonel Mallet said battle stations,” she said, thrusting me into a chair against the inner wall as I blinked against the afterimages of the blast. She pulled the safety harness down and fastened it around me before slipping into the next chair and strapping herself in. “The other ship is built for swift attacks. We are not. The Hephaestus may not survive the assault.”

                I stared at her. “Luli Xiang, you are much more than you appear,” I said quietly.

                “As are we all,” she answered with a slight smile. “You will know everything when the time is right.”

                Another blast rocked the ship and a groan resounded from the deck above, followed by a thud. The sound of Dr. Lucas Quidd’s distinctive voice echoed clearly down the stairwell, although not the actual words, but at least he was tending to whoever was injured. I suddenly thought of Granito Urantu’s sister in the hold. She would have no idea how to behave during such a calamity.

                “Lieutenant Popkins is with her,” Luli said before I could even articulate my concern.

                I nodded, but clenched my fists on the armrests, annoyed that I, who was ostensibly the leader of this team, was strapped into a chair and at the mercy of forces over which I had no control. I was not new to the aether, but while it had been a place of mystery, it had hitherto been safe. If we were on land—

                “T.E., Granito,” I said sharply, using familiar forms of address that I knew would catch their attention. “We must land the Hephaestus and defend her from there.” I raised a hand as they simultaneously turned to me and opened their mouths. “No, not on terra firma. On aethera firma. We obviously cannot outmaneuver this unseen enemy, as Luli Xiang points out, therefore—“

                Colonel Mallet pelted down the stairs. “We’ve taken some serious damage,” he said, wiping at a trickle of blood down the side of his face. “We can’t bring the gun to bear unless we land. And Teuber’s unconscious. Dr. Q.’s patched him up.”

                “Exactly what I was saying, gentlemen. Mister Urantu, can you—“ The ship swayed, accompanied by a dangerous-sounding creak as it was hit once more. I continued, “Can you set up a temporary defensive shield of some sort until we can land?”

                The dwarf scowled. “I believe so. But this mist is troublesome. Whoever has conjured this—“

                “We do not have enough information for speculation,” I interrupted. “Helmsman Dodd, set course for the nearest aethera firma once Mister Urantu has shielded us from view. The Engineer will work with Colonel Mallet on our offensive capabilities.” And I, I thought to myself, will worry about why we are being fired upon, and what are the intentions of this mysterious second airship.

                Mister Urantu spent approximately eight minutes hunched over a brass box, muttering in his native tongue and scribing symbols into its surface with what appeared to be a steel nib pen, although the green and white sparks it gave off suggested otherwise. I felt a brief lurch in my stomach, as when the airship hits a patch of turbulent air, and the blasts abruptly ceased. One problem temporarily solved.

                The Engineer grabbed up his tall, narrow, brass-bound toolbox and followed the colonel to the upper deck. I knew the second problem was on its way to being solved, with those two men attacking it. I released myself from the safety harness and strode across to peer out the front window once more.

                The clouds parted briefly, although the dark mist still writhed, and the helmsman pointed ahead. “Land ho, Miss Wesley,” he said in a conversational tone. “And no sign of our enemy.”

                I nodded. “Set her down, Lieutenant Dodd,” I said.

                Aethera firma looked little different than terra firma, except that the whole appeared as if viewed through smoked glass, with darker and less vibrant colors. The Hephaestus landed softly under the expert hand of its helmsman. I smiled back at Luli. “Shall we claim it for the Order?” I asked.

                She did not smile, but followed me out the hatch. The air was sharp and cold, the ground underfoot spongy. It was quiet, as well; no bird calls, only a high-pitched whistling that I ascribed to the wind. I turned and surveyed the damage to the ship.

                The long, lean shape of its hull was intact, but the observation deck on top was sheared in half, and one of the large delicate wings, mainly used for directional steering, was nearly destroyed. The Engineer would need many hours to repair it.

                I turned abruptly, sensing a new presence behind me.

                A dark-haired man stood with one arm around Luli’s throat. The other arm held a pistol to her temple. He smiled politely and said, in a conversational manner, “Excuse me, miss, but you are now my prisoners.”

The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 2, In Which We View a Mystery

 

                “Course is steady, sir,” the helmsman reported. “Passing the Mississippi River now.”

The Engineer nodded and conveyed additional orders I was unable to hear over Mister Urantu’s raised voice.

                Granito Urantu, the ship’s navigator and world’s foremost expert on ley lines and the aether, was berating his sister Porphyria in a voice that carried throughout the ship. Or perhaps he was singing her a lullaby. Everything spoken in that strange tongue of the Ironwright Clan sounded harsh and angry. One of my greatest annoyances in life was my inability to decipher the language, and although Mister Urantu and I were on relatively good terms—I saved his life during that Bibb County incident, little woman, big hand cannon—he steadfastly refused to teach it to me, forbidden by the Clan Chieftain. Porphyria, who was not an official member of the crew, pressed her lips together, shook her reddish-purple braids, gathered up her knitting and descended the stairs to the cabins below.

“Is Miss Urantu enjoying the voyage, Mister Urantu?” I asked.

The dwarf glared up at me, silver-flecked black eyes beneath wiry gray brows. Like all of his people of the Ironwright Clan, he was about four feet tall and fully as wide, all rock-solid muscle. “She should not have come, Miss Wesley,” he answered with what sounded to untutored ears like a Russian accent. He frowned more deeply, the braids of his bristly black beard twitching. “You know I am only dweorthen ever permitted to leave the Mountain. And now Chieftain wants her to go. Asks special permission from your chieftain. Will not tell me why. That is not…” Mister Urantu fumbled for a word. “That is not right,” he finished emphatically, stomping on the deck with a great iron-shod boot.

The Engineer glared across at him, brilliant green eyes startling amid the fine angles of his dark brown skin. “Kindly do not destroy my ship, Mister Urantu,” he said in his precise manner. “I need you to interpret these signals.” He gestured toward the instrument panel before him. “Either they are as alarming as they seem, or your continued stomping about necessitates my recalibration of them.”

Urantu muttered something under his breath and joined The Engineer. I followed, wondering briefly where Colonel Mallet was. Keeping watch, most likely. I noticed my assistant, Luli, taking down readings from this and that machine. I beckoned her to join us.

The instrument The Engineer indicated was a masterpiece of beauty and function, as was everything he designed. The raised brass lip surrounding the circular crystal viewing panel was rich with repoussé in a scrolled pattern of eldritch meaning. The buttons arrayed in a half circle above the viewing panel were semiprecious gems, chosen for their beauty and significance, each set in a copper mounting and carved with a single sigil. The Engineer pressed the lapis lazuli button and said, “See?”

I confess to little skill at aethereal cartography, but even I could see what was wrong. The ghostly blue fields that represent the aether, at this point in any journey on the Hephaestus, should blanket the viewing panel like clouds. The accompanying silver ley lines, by which Mister Urantu navigated and from which the ship drew sustenance, shot through the fields like so many threads in a bolt of cloth.

We were reaching an area where the blue fields were blackened, with sharp breaks in the ley lines.

“By the goddess,” I heard Luli whisper in her native Mandarin.

“Mister Urantu,” I began, “what could cause—“

“Not possible,” he snapped, his broad, blunt fingers clutching the raised lip around the viewing panel. “I have never seen—your viewer is broken.”

The Engineer brushed the dwarf aside and stooped with a fencer’s grace. He unlatched the brass fastener and slid open the panel below. Lifting his goggles into place from around his neck, the man touched a small stud on their side, sending a cold green glow from above his eyes to the interior of the instrument panel. The light gleamed fiendishly on wiring and bubbling liquids and shining metals and winking gems. The Engineer flipped a few switches, tugged at a wire, before turning off the green light and sliding the panel closed. He looked up at us, kneeling nearly nose to nose with Granito Urantu.

“My instrumentation is correct, Mister Urantu,” The Engineer said. The muscles of his jaw worked a moment before he added, “Something is destroying ley lines.”

And as if that pronouncement were not dramatic enough, at that very moment, a blast deafened us as we were thrown to the deck. The ship listed wildly. Elaborate swearing issued from topside and Colonel Mallet flung himself down the stairs.

“Battle stations!” he cried. “We are under attack!”

The Rogue Airship, or The Investigations of the Hephaestus

Chapter 1, Wherein We Receive An Exciting Assignment

                “This entire story must be rewritten, Miss Wesley! Why I agreed to hire a woman as a reporter for the Argus is beyond me.” Anthony Gesman threw the pages to the desktop with what I’m certain he hoped was an impressive snap, but they slithered across the layer of other papers with all the force of so much falling snow.

                “I really must protest, Mister Gesman,” I said primly. “My father does own the Shades Valley Argus, you know, and will not approve of your—“

                “I thought ‘modern women’ were above hiding behind their fathers’ influence,” the man interrupted. He leaned across the desk with a sneer, bushy red eyebrows crowding the bridge of his razor sharp nose. “How’m I doing?” he added in an undertone without moving his lips.

                I rose stiffly and said with affronted dignity, “I am not hiding behind anyone, sir,” then responded quietly, certain the brim of my hat would shield me from any attempted lip-reading in the vicinity, “You haven’t lost your acting skills, Tony. But I think your dramatic gesture covered up the cards my assistant spent so much time and effort assembling.”

                “Don’t argue with me!” he said loudly. “Now sit down and let’s see if we can’t salvage this—this so-called story.”

                We both sat, and while he scrabbled for the pages of my scattered story about yet another dedication of yet another new building on 2nd Avenue, I said softly, “The reports vary widely, but Mister Urantu plotted them and concluded the most convincing of them occur along major ley lines, on or close to dominant nodes.”

                Gesman stared at me for a moment, eyebrows halfway up his florid forehead. Remembering his role, he grunted and reached for a pen charged with red ink, scribbling mercilessly on my story before glancing down at the newly revealed cards on which Luli had pasted various headlines, notating dates and newspapers below in her precise hand. “Sounds worth our time to investigate,” he said lightly, although I sensed a strong interest behind his words. “What’s the colonel’s take on this?”

                I objected to his correction of a particular sentence and he glared menacingly for public consumption. “Colonel Mallet believes the reports are indicative of a scouting party,” I said, “but The Engineer disagrees based on the eyewitness accounts. One of the less credible accounts mentioned a golden-haired woman with a seductive voice, although the majority of them indicate one or two men.”

                Gesman looked startled, although I could not tell by which part of my statement.

                “Now get this story to press,” the editor said in his most growling voice and shoved the story back into my hands. “And assemble the team,” he added quietly. “You’ll need the Hephaestus.” Anthony Gesman straightened the row of headlines, and I quickly reviewed them upside down: “Claim They Saw a Flying Airship; Strange Tale of Sacramento Men Not Addicted to Prevarication Viewed an Aerial Courser as It Passes Over the City at Night,” from the San Francisco Call, November 18, 1896; “Special Dispatch,” from the Omaha Bee, February 2, 1897; “Phenomenon of the Heavens; Strange Appearance and Disappearance of Three Lights,” from the Galveston News, March 28, 1897; “Airship Over Kansas; Topeka People Scared by a Nocturnal Visitor,” from the Rocky Mountain News, also March 28, 1897; and the last, “Sighting the Airship,” from the Dallas Morning News, April 16, 1897.

“Yes, sir,” I answered. “I’m certain all of Birmingham is awaiting news of the dedication of its skyline’s latest eyesore.” I swept toward the door, wondering what personal interest Anthony Gesman had in this case.

“He’s quite impossible,” I said in answer to a fellow reporter’s question. “I wouldn’t disturb him just now.”

I handed in my story and gathered up a few essentials from my desk, smiling to myself. The Shades Valley Argus was indeed the premiere newspaper in the state, but it also served as an excellent cover for the activities of the Order of the Argus, named for the hundred-eyed giant of Greek mythology. I suspected we would spy out even more wonders on this adventure.

I made my excuses to colleagues, and hurried to arrange with The Engineer for the voyage of the heretofore only known airship in the world, the Hephaestus. He would be most interested to find out who else besides himself had the ingenuity to craft such a machine—and the daring to fly it.

               

Next installment: Chapter 2, Wherein We Set Off on Our Voyage of Discovery