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