Airborn - an excerpt
6 / Szpirglas
"Sir, there's a ship headed towards us!"
The airship was small, and I could now see why I'd not picked her out earlier. Her skin was painted black, and she carried no running beacons anywhere. No light emanated from the Control Car either. Her side bore no markings, no name or number. It was only her dark sheen from the moon's light that made her visible at all.
"She's at ten o'clock and sailing straight for us, half a mile."
"Bear away," I heard the first office tell his rudder-man. "Elevator up six degrees. Summon the captain."
That meant we were going into a climb. The Aurora was as responsive as a falcon. Stars streamed to my left as the ship began her turn, angling heavenward. High in the crowsnest, I swivelled in my chair so I could watch the smaller vessel. As we turned and climbed, she turned and climbed with us, keeping herself on a collision course. This was no mistake. She was chasing us. She was smaller and faster than the Aurora, and I could feel the vibration of our engines at full capacity. We would not be able to outrun her.
"Where is she, Mr. Cruse?"
"She's changed course, but still coming right at us. Closing, at eight o'clock."
"Raise her on the radio!" I heard the first officer shouting out to the wireless officer.
"She's not responding."
A collision seemed sure now, but for what purpose?
"Some two hundred yards, sir."
"Send out a distress call," I heard Mr. Rideau instruct the wireless operator.
"We're too far out, sir," Mr. Bayard's voice replied.
It was clear there was no shaking her, this sleek black raptor shadowing us through the night sky.
"She's angling up, sir," I said into the speaking tube, "as though she means to overshoot us."
"Take us down, Mr. Riddihoff, take us down five degrees, with haste!"
I felt the Aurora pivot and her bow dip. My ears popped and heaviness rose through me. I swirled in my seat, peering up and almost over the ship's stern as the airship pulled closer, altering course as seamlessly as if she'd anticipated our moves.
"Fifty yards off our stern!" I shouted into the speaking tube. "Forty, thirty . . . she's pulling up over our tail."
And so she was, this predatory airship, skimming over our tail fins and gradually overtaking us, only a few dozen feet overhead.
"She's directly overhead, sir, matching us."
We were levelling out now and so was the other airship. Less than half our size, she was like some agile black shark hounding a whale.
"Hard about, please."
Through the speaking tube it was the captain's voice I heard now, and I felt a surge of confidence to know he was on the bridge. He would see us through this. Again the Aurora swivelled, trying to throw off her predator, but once more the smaller ship matched our movements, slinking over us like a shadow. A spotlight flared from its underside, and I saw ropes springing from open bay doors and unfurling towards the Aurora.
"She's dropping lines on us!" I shouted into the speaking tube.
Pirates! That was all they could be.
"They're trying to board," the captain said. "Dive and roll to starboard, please."
The lines were weighted, for they hit the ship and didn't slide off. I saw six men already dropping down towards me. But then the Aurora banked sharply, dipped, and the lines slewed off the Aurora's back, leaving the men dangling in mid-air.
"Ha! You'll not have us!" I shouted, shaking my fist.
But the pirate airship was already adjusting its course, keeping pace, and as it forced us closer to the waves, we would have less space to manoeuvre. There was a great flash from the pirate ship's underbelly and a thunderous volley of cannon fire scorched the night sky across our bow.
A voice carried by bullhorn shuddered the air.
"Put your nose to the wind and cut speed."
There was no need for me to repeat this into the speaking tube for I knew they had heard it in the Control Car. There was a moment of silence, and I could imagine them all down there, standing very straight and still, the elevator men and rudder-men watching the captain, awaiting his command. He had no choice. That cannon could sink us in an instant.
"Level off and put her into the wind, please," said Captain Walken. "Throttle back the engines to one-quarter. Thank you."
The pirate ship glided over us. Once more, the boarding lines hit the Aurora's back, and down them slid six men, clothed in black, with more already on the way. The first set touched down and made fast their lines to mooring cleats. Spotlights swept the ship, giving the pirates light. We were connected now, the Aurora and this diabolical little ship. She had us like a harpooned whale, and there was nothing we could do to throw her off. At four hundred feet over the waves, we cruised along in tandem.
"They're on us, sir," I said into the speaking tube. "Six of them and six more coming. Maybe more, I can't tell."
Half were heading towards the aft hatch, the other half towards mine, single file, hunched over, hands barely grasping the guide wire. They were quick. In the spotlight's glare, the man in the lead was a terrible sight to behold, his hair tied back, his face hollowed out by shadow, eyes narrowed against the wind. He must have seen me, for he gave a most unpleasant smile that made my stomach roll over. I caught the dull sheen of metal in his belt: a pry bar, and beside it, a pistol.
"Mr. Cruse," came the captain's voice. "Did you hear me? Lock the hatch and leave your post, please. Assemble in the keel catwalk outside the passenger quarters."
It felt cowardly to abandon my post, but my heart was clattering and the urge to fly beat in every muscle of my body. The men would be here soon. I locked the hatch, though I knew it would only slow them for a moment. My last glimpse was of yet more men sliding down the boarding lines and landing on the Aurora's back. I started down the ladder as quickly as I could.
From below came the slow whoop of the alarm claxon. I heard the hatch overhead being wrenched, then a crack. Heavy footfalls rang through the ladder. I took my feet off the rungs and slid with both hands the rest of the way. I hit the axial catwalk running.
"We're boarded!" I gasped to two of the sailmakers. "They're coming through the fore and aft hatches."
"Too many. They've got guns."
The ship's alarm filled my head. I saw one of the sailmakers look at the long wrench in his fist. He grimaced. We were no match for armed men-
Then the pirates were all around us.
"You! All of you! Don't move. Let the wrench go. Hands where we can see them. That's the way."
More and more pirates sprang down onto the axial catwalk, their pistols cocked. Dressed in black trousers and shirts, they brought with them a malodorous breeze of gunpowder and oil and sweat, as though they'd just burst out through the gates of Hades. Their belts swung with tools and knives and gunny sacks. They rounded up whatever crew was unfortunate enough to be up here and forced us down the ladders with them, wedged in by pirates above and below so there was no chance of escape. Where would we escape to?
All along the keel catwalk, the pirates surged, corralling more of the crew and marching us forward at gunpoint, our hands in the air. At the end of catwalk, Captain Walken stood with his first officers before the locked door to the passenger quarters. Across his chest he held the ship's rifle. Last time I'd seen it, it was nestled behind glass in the captain's cabin. There were no other arms aboard.
The pirates came to an abrupt halt, and for a hopeful moment I wondered if they were cowed by the sight of the captain and Mr. Torbay and Mr. Rideau and Mr. Levy and the ship's rifle at the ready. The pirates looked back down the catwalk, to the nearest companion ladder. Tall gleaming black boots stepped nimbly down the rungs. Dark riding pants and coat followed. The man jumped to the catwalk and the pirates parted, shoving me and the other crew to one side as he passed, walking towards the captain. He looked as if he could have just dismounted a horse at a nobleman's manor. He was smiling, as though about to be reunited with an old friend.
I recognized him at once, for I had seen his likeness sketched in newspapers the world over. He was a handsome man, with a high, intelligent-looking forehead, tightly curled hair, large eyes, and pale skin. His name was Vikram Szpirglas and he was as much legend as man. No one in my acquaintance had actually encountered him, but everyone knew someone who had. The stories were many, and all terrible. He sailed over the globe, had no fixed home, and had never been caught. He boarded freighters and passenger ships and looted them, killing if he needed to.
"Sir," said Captain Walken, and I marvelled that his voice betrayed not even a tremor. "This is as scandalous a breech of aeronautical law as I've ever encountered. Explain this behaviour."
"It needs no explanation, surely," said Szpirglas to the chuckles of his pirate crew. "We've boarded your ship. We mean to pillage it. And then we will depart."
"You'll not enter the passenger quarters."
"Sadly, we must. We want to get at all the jewels and pretty trinkets your rich passengers carry aboard."
The captain raised his rifle.
"Sir," said Szpirglas. "Please. Let us not play-act. Firing that gun would wound your ship. My men are fine aims, sir, finer than you, but once we all start firing, there would be too many holes in her belly to stay aloft. She's a fine ship, and we have no wish to harm her or any aboard. You have my word."
A suave gentleman he was, to be sure. To hear him speak, you'd think he was the ambassador of Angleterre.
"We'll also be wanting access to the cargo holds, to have a look about."
His men were everywhere now; dozens of them ranged along the catwalk, crouched atop ballast tanks and ladders, and in the rigging, all with their pistols drawn and pointed at the crew and our captain. Cowardly it was. To come aboard an unarmed passenger vessel with such might, and hold her crew at gunpoint. It was almost more than I could bear to watch the captain. For truly he had no choice. What he did not give to these pirates, they would take by violent force.
"You will allow my crew to assemble the passengers in the lounges," Captain Walken said severely. "We will instruct them to leave their valuables in their rooms. They will not be harassed in any way."
"Agreed," said Szpirglas, "as long as they all behave and don't try to ferret away some of their favourite baubles in their silk pyjamas. We have a deal, my good Captain-Ah, and one last thing, of course. No heroics from your men, if you please. No daring counterattacks, or attempts to send distress signals."
"Very well," said the captain. He lowered his rifle, and one of the pirates stepped forward and snatched it from his hands. Captain Walken turned and unlocked the door to the passenger quarters, and the pirates pressed forward, driving us with them. At the base of the grand staircase, the captain summoned the other stewards. I caught Baz's eye as he stared, bewildered, at the sight of all the pirates fanning out through the entrance lobby.
"You will escort these gentlemen through the ship," the captain told his cabin crew. "Please wake the passengers as gently as you can, and reassure them."
The pirates shadowed us as we dispersed through A and B decks. I was coupled with a tall rangy fellow with only one hand-but one that looked big enough to strangle a rhino with. Right now it was closed around a pistol, his meaty fingers so big they made the weapon look like a child's toy. A gunny sack was tucked into his belt.
"We will be collecting bracelets, timepieces, necklaces, broaches, rings," Szpirglas sang as we proceeded up the grand staircase to A-Deck. "In particular we are fond of anything with precious stones, and gold and silver. Though, rest assured we will not be asking for gold fillings tonight!"
His crew erupted into raucous laughter, as though this were all the best of fun.
"I would also like keys to the ship's safe, if you don't mind, Captain," said Szpirglas.
It was unpleasant work, rapping on people's doors at four in the morning, telling them the ship had been boarded by pirates and that they were requested to please throw on a robe and come to the lounge while their rooms were pillaged.
"I'm sorry," I told a frail lady and her sister. "No harm will come to you. They only want things."
"But . . . we're very fond of our things," said one of the ladies wistfully.
"Don't be daft, Edith, they're welcome to whatever they want."
In went Rhino Hand, rummaging through their steamer trunks and bureaus, and stealing whatever he wanted. I left him to his work and proceeded down the corridor. By this time, with the alarm and noise, many were already awake, opening their doors and sticking out their heads. I reached the end of the corridor, the Topkapi stateroom. I'd barely raised my knuckles to rap when the door opened.
It was Miss Simpkins. Her hair was tied up in rags and she wore a scarf around her head, so she gave me a bit of a shock. Without her makeup she looked quite different-puffier, and her eyes seemed smaller.
"You must come, miss," I said. "Pirates have boarded the ship."
"Pirates!" she said in outrage, as though we'd somehow planned this just for her inconvenience.
"You and Miss de Vries must come to the lounge now."
"We'll do no such thing, boy. Now shoo, I'm about to lock my door-"
A great boot hit the door, bursting it open and nearly mashing Miss Simpkins, who gave a squeal as Rhino Hand strode into the room.
"You heard the lad," the pirate told her. I hadn't known he was capable of speech, but he had a very fine British accent, as it turned out. "To the lounge, please, ladies. Sorry for the inconvenience. Lashings of apologies."
By this time, Kate had appeared in her nightdress. "What does this mean?" she whispered to me, face pale, her eyes huge.
"Don't worry," I said. "We've been boarded, but they've promised to do no harm as long as we co-operate."
She hesitated, looking stricken, as the pirate poked about her camera, deciding whether to take it. He didn't, in the end, and was more interested in the wardrobe drawers where there were plenty of sparkly things to put in his sack.
"Come along," I said, and led them to the lounge, where most of the other passengers were now assembled, sitting stiffly in the wicker chairs, looking like wax dummies under the electric lights. All these people, whom I normally saw in dinner jackets and evening dresses, laughing and eating, were now in their pyjamas and bathrobes, small and bewildered. A few people tried to talk, but silence weighted the room like thunderclouds. Watchful guards stood at the main entrances. Szpirglas perched on the bar and helped himself to a drink.
"I can guarantee you're all insured, ladies and gentlemen, and this will be, at worst, an inconvenience. We mustn't get too attached to our worldly possessions, after all, must we? What are they but things, baubles, trifles, bits of stuff?" He thumped his heart. "It is here we must find our treasures and store them up. And these things know no price."
A real comedian he was, and this was as much a vaudeville performance as a robbery. But if newspaper reports were to be believed, his sense of humour could shrivel up in a second. From a laugh to a gunshot without any warning.
The pirates were efficient, I'll give them that. It seemed hardly any time at all had passed before they were back with bulging gunny sacks and big smiles. Then another pirate entered the lounge, a great bearded mountain of a fellow, pushing the chief radio officer, Mr. Featherstone, ahead of him at gunpoint.
"What's this, Mr. Crumlin?" Szpirglas asked.
"Caught him down in the wireless room, trying to send an SOS," Crumlin said.
"Aah," Szpirglas said, as though confronted with a particularly stubborn child. "Sir, I thought we had something of a gentleman's agreement," he said, turning to Captain Walken. "You would let us go about our work unmolested, and we would leave you and all aboard unharmed. But trying to radio for help-this is breaking the rules, wouldn't you agree?" "He knew nothing of it," Mr. Featherstone said. "I was acting on my own. Sorry, Captain."
"Very noble of you," said Szpirglas. "I commend you for your honesty. But this does distress me, it truly does. I'd been quite enjoying myself until now." Everyone in the lounge was sitting rigidly, listening, and Szpirglas addressed us all, as if we were an audience and he were on stage. "You must understand, all I have in the world is my good name. People know me, they know that I might come aboard their ships and take their goodies. They know that I am a pirate. To be an effective pirate, one must be respected and feared. So what would become of me if people started to think they could put one over on old Szpirglas? Try to trick me, try to catch me. No, that wouldn't do at all. I must protect my good name at all costs."
He drew his pistol and shot Mr. Featherstone point-blank in the head.
A great gasp from all of us sucked the air out of the room as the wireless officer fell to the floor. People were crying and screaming. Doc Halliday was at Mr. Featherstone's side in a second.
"He's dead," he said.
"Listen to me!" Szpirglas shouted. "I will not be trifled with. I do not relish killing, but I will do it if I must. If you do not show me the proper respect, you force me to earn it! I bid you all farewell."
He turned and left the lounge, and his men went with him.
We all stood frozen for moment. My insides were ice. I don't think anyone really knew what we ought to be doing. Some part of me thought we should be following them, seeing what they were about, making sure they did no mischief to the ship, but no one was keen to anger Szpirglas further.
Captain Walken nodded at Mr. Torbay and Mr. Wexler, and they cautiously began to follow the departing pirates. I wasn't supposed to, but I went too, falling into step behind the officers as they headed down the grand staircase and through the access doorway to the keel catwalk. Overhead, I could see the pirates climbing the companion ladders towards the axial catwalk. I wanted to make sure they kept going; I wanted them off the ship without harming her.
"I can follow them," I said to Mr. Torbay. "They won't see me."
"You'll do no such thing, Mr. Cruse."
"They won't even know I'm there, sir," I persisted. Mr. Torbay had seen me swing over the ocean on a piece of rope; he knew I could climb and hide myself amidst the ship's rigging.
"You do not have my permission, Mr. Cruse," he said kindly. "Do not follow us, is that clear?"
They started up the companion ladder to the axial catwalk. I would not follow them. I would go aft and climb up through the rigging, unseen by officers or pirates. It was unlike me to disobey an order, but there was something going through me, a terrible fear that the ship, my home, might be in danger, and I could not just sit in the passenger lounge, blind, hoping everything would be all right.
I raced aft, and scampered up the wiring and braces. I could swing my way around the ship like a spider. Up I went, hidden, towards the axial catwalk, my feet springing from wire to wire. Almost level with the catwalk I could see the pirates now waiting their turn at the next ladder, climbing up to the forward observation hatch. It seemed they really were leaving-without any other evil design on the ship or her passengers-and I felt my heart begin to calm. Maybe it was truly over.
As the last pirate began his climb, I ran down the catwalk and hurried up the ladder to the aft crow's nest, past the shimmering gossamer skin of the gas cells. I peered out through the domed hatch. The remaining pirates were crouched along the Aurora's back, grabbing at boarding lines, uncleating them and then holding tight as they were hauled back to their airship. We were free.
But when I looked beyond Szpirglas's ship, I saw a great dense mass of darkness against the night sky and knew, just by the Aurora's vibrations, that we were heading into a storm front. Rain started clattering against the ship's skin, and the Aurora bobbed sharply as the wind hit her.
Above me, Szpirglas's ship gave a mighty downward lurch before steadying herself. We were free of the pirate ship, but not the elements. Ploughing through a front, you sometimes got a microburst, an intense downward column of wind that could drive you suddenly lower. I snatched up the speaking tube.
"Crow's nest reporting!"
"Mr. Cruse?" came the captain's voice. "What the devil are you doing up there?"
"Sir, the pirate ship has cast off, but we're heading into a storm front."
"I'm aware of that, Mr. Cruse. Now, get down from there."
"Sir, the other ship, she's awfully close . . ."
At that moment the wind took the Aurora in her grip and gave us a mighty downward shove. I heard our engines roar to full throttle, felt the elevators struggling to keep us level. But from above, I saw Szpirglas's ship, a fraction of our size, come hurtling towards us, driven by the same wind.
"She's coming down on us!"
I felt the Aurora start to dive and roll, but we were too late. The pirate ship veered into us, then tried to pull away, but another gust of wind pushed us together again. I saw and heard Szpirglas's propellers coming, two great whirling blades on her starboard side, slashing the night and then-
The Aurora. The propellers caught in our skin and kept cutting, through the taut fabric, through the gas cells inside. The propellers slashed through our port side, from stern to amidships. I felt the horrible chainsaw vibration rattle the entire ship.
"We're breeched!" I hollered into the speaking tube.
The pirate ship slewed away from us, and came back once more, its propellers racing towards me. I dropped down the ladder, and was nearly thrown off the rungs when the blades cut through the hull. Then they were gone, wrenched back into the sky. I clung to the ladder, panting, listening to the roar of the propellers fade.
Then there was a new sound.
The mango-scented gush of escaping hydrium.
copyright 2003 Kenneth Oppel