The Forever Engine – Snippet 21
“Non, perhaps not,” Gabrielle said. “But it raises the interesting questions. It was your James Madison who said government is formulated to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority, n’est-cepas? The question is whether the state, if denied that ability to protect the wealthy few from the many, then has a remaining useful function.”
“It’s hardly as simple as that, lass,” Thomson protested.
“I should say not!” Gordon echoed in rare agreement with the Scotsman. And they were off and running.
I’d said my piece, and I had no dog in this fight, so I mostly listened. Thomson and Gordon argued with passion and enthusiasm; Gabrielle spoke in a simple tone which never seemed to vary in intensity. Her grasp of detail was incredible. The logic and consistency of her arguments were unassailable, provided you accepted the premises upon which they were based. But most importantly, she was tireless. She simply wore Thomson and Gordon down, without appearing to realize that’s what she was doing. When an hour into the argument Intrepid‘s captain sent word requesting Thomson’s presence on the bridge, I think it came as a relief to all of us except Gabrielle. Gordon and I bid her farewell at the same time and accompanied Thomson, although Gordon left us as soon as we were away from her.
* * *
“Ah, hello, sir,” young Ensign Conroy greeted Thomson as we entered the wheelhouse, and then he nodded to me as well. “Captain’s compliments and he’s occupied at the moment, but we’re getting close to the destination and he thought you might like to see the approach.”
Conroy handed Thomson a pair of binoculars, but space was at a premium along the broad window at the front of the wheelhouse. I pointed to the portside hatchway, and Thomson nodded. We made our way out onto the open railed platform they called the bridge wing.
“Quite a formidable young lady,” Thomson said once we were under open sky. “Badly misinformed, of course, but that’s hardly her fault. I think it would take weeks to untangle all of her misconceptions, and who has the time for that now?”
“Or the energy,” I added, and he nodded. Even if he could muster the necessary stamina, I wondered who would end up tangled at the end of those weeks, and who untangled, but I kept that to myself.
“Craft ahead,” the lookout above the wheelhouse called out. “Bearing green zero-one-five, climbing from twenty degrees down-angle. Range four thousand and closing.”
Ensign Conroy and another officer I didn’t know came out onto the bridge wing to have a better look. Thomson offered me the loaned binoculars, and I took them gratefully. It took a few seconds to find it. It looked like a zeppelin to me — black gas bag with some sort of structure slung underneath. As it was climbing and pointed almost directly at us, it was hard to see much else about it. The lookout had a good pair of eyes; the black gasbag was almost invisible against the dark backdrop of the Alps behind it.
“One of the old L Zed Fives,” Ensign Conroy said.
“Bavaria flies one or two of them, as I recall,” the other officer answered. “Probably an escort. Afraid we won’t be able to find Kempten on our own, I imagine. Better call the captain, Mr. Conroy. He may want to exchange honors.”
“Action stations, sir?” Conroy asked. The other officer hesitated and then shook his head.
Conroy disappeared into the wheelhouse.
The zeppelin was already noticeably closer. Four thousand yards was only a little over two miles. We were cruising at about twenty knots, and if he was coming on at the same speed, we were closing the distance at almost a mile a minute. Captain Harding emerged from the wheelhouse. He must have been in the chart room right behind it to get here this quickly.
“I have the bridge, Mr. Longchamps,” he said.
“Aye, aye, sir. Our course is one six five magnetic, altitude four thirty, speed nineteen knots. L Zed Five-class zeppelin approaching, climbing to meet us. Range about two thousand and closing. Shall we go to action stations, sir?”
“Not enough time to get everyone assembled at the rate he’s coming. Why show our German hosts a crowded, confused deck? No, we’ll dip the colors as a salute. Have the signaler stand by.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Longchamps went back into the wheelhouse. Harding followed him and left Thomson and me alone for the moment. The zeppelin was down to perhaps half a mile now. It would pass us to starboard, and Thomson and I stood on the portside flying bridge, so I could see a little of its profile. The gas bag was more pointed than the big German zeppelins of the 1930s, and the crew compartment hung a few meters below the bag instead of being tucked right up against it. I studied it through the binoculars, never having seen a real one before. Its tail planes were visible then, but were the same featureless black as the gas bag.
“Germans don’t mark their zeps?” I asked.
“Yes,” Thomson answered. “Usually a large Maltese cross on the side of the balloon and a smaller one on the tail.”
I felt my heart accelerate, felt the first fingers of dopey excitement claw at my brain, and then I saw the gun mount swiveling toward us, a vaguely familiar gun mount which had no business being here in this time.
I dropped the binoculars and grabbed Thomson by the lapels, pushed his back against the outside steel wall of the wheelhouse, and then kicked his feet out from under him. He crashed to the deck with a startled grunt. I ducked down beside him.
“What in blazes –” he started, but then was drown out by the sound of metal impacting metal, exploding glass, and screaming men. Some of the glass from the wheelhouse windows blew out on us, along with tiny beads of molten steel, one of which smoldered on the sleeve of my coat and burned my arm underneath before I could shake it off.
The zeppelin was already past the wheelhouse. I heard its gun fire again — POW, POW, POW — but the rounds hit farther aft.
“Stay down,” I ordered and Thomson nodded wordlessly, face as white as the clouds.
I ran through the smoky chaos of the wheelhouse, seeing nothing clearly but an oval-shaped panel of blue sky — the hatch to the starboard bridge wing. In clean air I came up hard against the brass railing and looked at the enormous black giver of death slipping past. A small streak of fire shot out from the zeppelin’s gondola and hit somewhere behind the superstructure, causing an explosion which shook the deck under my feet. Then the gun started again: POW, POW, POW. One of the aft propellers flew to pieces, the rudder jumped and twisted at the wrong angle, the other prop shuddered and came to a halt amid the screech of tortured metal. Then the zeppelin was past us. I watched for a moment, but it showed no sign of turning back on us.
Beneath me I could feel Intrepid begin to list slightly to starboard as her speed fell away. I turned back into the wheelhouse. Broken glass covered everything, and all of the bridge crew was down except for Ensign Conroy, who knelt beside the unconscious Captain Harding and pressed his hand over the captain’s bloody forehead. The other officer, Longchamps, had lost the back half of his head.
“Captain, wake up!” Conroy shouted over and over.
My head spun, for a moment nothing, made sense. Then I remembered the red lever by the engine telegraph from our earlier encounter with the French, and I pulled it. Five quick bells, a pause, five more quick bells: action stations — as if anyone onboard didn’t already know we were in a world of trouble. This would at least bring more people up here, people who knew what they were doing. I held on to the helm for balance and realized the list was getting worse. The petty officer they called the trimsman had nearly lost his right arm above the elbow, and the mangled flesh and bone lay beside him on the deck at an awkward angle. I crunched through broken glass to get to him, pulled him away from the hedge of trim levers, and applied pressure on his inside upper arm to stop the arterial bleeding. Christ, there was a lot of blood!
“Captain, wake up!” Conroy pleaded.
“Conroy, you’re in command!” I shouted at him. He didn’t seem to hear me, so I picked up a handful of broken glass and threw it at his back. That got his attention.
“You’re in command. The ship’s listing and the trimsman’s down. Fucking do something!”
He looked around helplessly at the blood-spattered ruin of the wheelhouse, the shattered controls and broken bodies, and then back down.
“Captain, wake up!”
Feet pounded on the steel stairs to the port flying bridge. A naval rating appeared in the hatchway and froze for a moment, taking in the scene.
“Bloody ‘ell!” he said. An officer pushed past him and made a quick survey of the damage.
“Better get someone on these trim controls,” I told him, “or we’re going to tip right over.” I didn’t know what would happen then, but I couldn’t imagine it would be good.