The Forever Engine – Snippet 37
October 8/9, 1888,
Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,
Aloft over Turkish Bosnia
Harding might have been an asshole, but he was a righteous navigator. He dropped us right down through the storm into the valley of the Drina River. The river’s surface, visible in the glare of the bow searchlight, danced in angry whitecaps. Wind gusts made Intrepid shudder and sideslip, and sheets of rain slammed into the glass windows of the bridge.
As bad as it was down here, it was certainly worse aloft, which is why Harding brought Intrepid down as soon as he did. Another reason was the lightning, crackling and exploding all along the banks to either side, as ferocious a display as I’d ever seen in my life. Intrepid was struck three times, but as soon as Harding had seen the water, he had dropped the ship’s ground cable and raised its lightning masts. All three strikes had grounded into the river below us.
Gordon and I declared an uneasy truce and returned to the wheelhouse as we approached our landing area. It looked like hell out there.
“How are you going to return in all this?” Gordon asked. “You can’t go up into those thunderheads, surely.”
“We’ll follow the river back north,” Harding answered. “It flows into the Sava near the Austrian frontier. With luck we will have a break in the weather and can make the run to Ujvidék from there. It’s only fifty miles. If the weather doesn’t break, we’ll have to follow the Sava west to Zagreb.”
That would mean not being back at Ujvidék by morning, possibly alerting Tesla’s informants to the threat, but there was no point in belaboring the obvious.
“We’re going to have to change the plan anyway,” I said. “We were going to camp in a meadow down there while Gordon and I contact the Turks in Višegràd. That won’t work in this weather.”
“What’s wrong, Fargo. Don’t fancy getting your dainty feet wet?” Harding asked.
“The plan made sense because there are no villages down there in the meadows. They’re all up in the foothills, so not much chance of anyone stumbling across us at night.”
“And?” he demanded.
“And there’s a reason there are no villages on the meadows. It’s the same reason they call those meadows ‘flood plains.’ With this rain, by morning there’s going to be a couple feet of water over all that ground and anything not tied down is going to be twenty miles downriver. And no, I don’t fancy getting that wet.”
Harding scanned the riverbank for a while and scowled, trying to come up, I imagined, with a good reason not to agree with me. But facts were facts.
“Very well. If we are going to drop you closer, we may as well take you to the bloody city gates. Mr. Jenkins, take us down to wave-top level, if you please.”
“Wave-top level, aye, aye, sir.” Jenkins replied. “Trimsman, one per cent negative buoyancy.”
“In this weather any sensible person will be indoors, and the lunatics may think we’re a riverboat,” Harding added and glared at me, daring me to disagree. I returned his look until he turned away.
“Captain Gordon, I’ll let the others know about the change in plans,” I said.
“Very well. I will join you when we arrive.”
I left the bridge into the driving rain, slid down the ladder to the superstructure level and then down the adjoining ladder to the main deck. One of the naval ratings had shown me how, feet on the outside of the handrail using friction to slow me, and I was getting pretty good at it. I opened the hatch into the superstructure just abeam of the midship port gun mount and ducked out of the rain.
The group was assembled in the crew’s mess, with the tables pushed against the walls to make room. I looked them over and shook my head. They were probably all in civilian clothes, but nobody seemed to think about their overcoats. All twenty Bavarians wore identical field gray greatcoats while the twelve Marines wore identical blue-gray coats. Von Schtecker was chatting with Gabrielle, but he bowed to her and crossed the room to meet me.
“We are ready,” he announced. “We should be nearing the landing ground, ja?”
“Yeah. Slight change of plans: Intrepid is taking us right into Višegràd.”
“Sehr gut. Bad weather for marching, even though the men are well-equipped.”
“Yeah, pretty snappy greatcoats.”
“Ja. All insignia removed, as you said. You see?”
“That’ll fool everyone, no doubt.”
He looked at me and smiled condescendingly.
“I see, Herr Professor. You believe our party of thirty-four men, all of military age and bearing, who speak only English and German and who carry the latest military rifles, would fool everyone if only we had thought to wear different colored coats. I think not, and I must tell you, speaking as a military man, that there are advantages to the peasants knowing we are capable of taking care of ourselves. Bandits infest these hills, but they attack only the weak.”
He was right. The lack of insignia wasn’t so much intended to fool people as to give the two governments what in my time we called “plausible deniability.”
I left von Schtecker and joined Gabrielle. Her gear was again at her feet, but I took a closer look this time. A rucksack that looked about three-quarters full. A long blanket roll wrapped in a rubberized canvas ground cloth, with the two ends of the roll tied together. She’d wear that over one shoulder and across her body. She had a canvas haversack for over the other shoulder, a good-sized canteen also on a long shoulder strap, a brown leather gun case, and a leather bandolier with big, thick ammunition pouches on it. Her headgear was a grayish-white cloth-covered cork sun helmet, stained and worn. None of her gear looked new except for the leather gun case.
“You’ve done this before,” I said. “What are you packin’?”
“Many things. Spare stockings and underwear, one clean blouse, some concentrated –”
“No, I meant what’s in the gun case?”
“Ah. It is the shotgun. I find that more useful than the rifle in most cases. I used to carry the twenty-gauge with two barrels, but this is a new gun from your country, designed by Monsieur John Browning. Have you heard of him in your time?”
“Now and then. May I?”
She nodded, and I unzipped the case and carefully slipped the shotgun out.
She had a Winchester Model 1887 twelve-gauge lever action, and it was like new. What was I thinking? It was new. They’d only been making them for about a year.
“You like?” she asked.
“Shit, yeah. Only thing is, I’m beginning to feel undergunned with just a Webley. The magazine holds five and one in the action?”
“I do not carry it with a round in the chamber. I do not think that safe, but yes, five cartridges in the magazine. The twenty-gauge was adequate for most purposes, but ammunition was sometimes difficult to find. Also the number five buckshot is too light, I think, if the target is a man. The double-zero shot of the twelve gauge is better.”
That was certainly true, if a little cold-blooded. Hard to beat double-ought buck for taking down a person.
“You ever shoot a man?”
“Non, but nearly so. I have had to threaten to do this thing.”
“Think you could put the trigger if you had to?”
“Oui,” she answered simply, and I believed her.
“So what made you point a shotgun at someone?”
“Bandits threatened to steal the supplies of our expedition. There were eight of them, très féroce.”
“Eight of them, and you with only two rounds. That why you decided to go with a lever action?”