Drake & McTrowell Icon
Her Majesty’s Eyes and Ears - Page 7: July 30, 2012 - September 19, 2012

Previous Page Next Page

For the Want of a Warm Pub
HMA Brittania
Polished and Prepped
Stealth and the Lack Thereof
Green Grass, Brown Well
Danger Plus Opportunity


For the Want of a Warm Pub

Entry for July 30, 2012 Written by David L. Drake

The unkempt brush on the far side of the stream was difficult to maneuver through, but it did provide exceptional coverage for hiding Sergeant Fox, Dr. McTrowell, and Chief Inspector Drake. After breaking through the thickest part of the greenery near the stream, the land opened to a field of tall grasses. The three gathered around. Not one of them mentioned the fact that they were now soaked from the waist down, nor that their armaments were now just additional weight to carry given their inferiority to the metal army amassed nearby.

J. B. slipped effortlessly into his commanding voice; a tad deeper and resonant, but always delivered with a piercing gaze. This time his eyes were fixed on Erasmus. “I’ve made my assessment of the situation, but I want to hear from you first.” Sparky temporarily held her tongue. Being left out of this initial conversation was not her style, and she did her best to wait for the conversation to come to her.

Erasmus’ response was immediate, his constable training showing through. “There were thirty-six Dragon’s Teeth; six rows of six. I counted five different types, none of them matching the one we assembled at Dr. Pogue’s laboratory. The majority had multiple shoulder-mounted barrels. Some had large heads and bodies and long snouts. I’m not sure what those are for. The third type had bladed appendages. The fourth type had wheels and looked like a lorry for hauling. The final type was shorter and blockier. My guess was that they were a mobile mortar. Perhaps planting their pointed tip tail and aiming their heads at their targets. My conclusion is that they are building an ambulatory army.”

“Hmm. Interesting assessment. Dr. McTrowell, what is your assessment?”

Sparky furrowed her brow and pressed her lips before speaking the truth that was plain to her. “If these machines are operational, and I assume they are, we are essentially outmanned and outgunned. We should leave and reassess.”

“Do you think they would attack us if we approached unarmed?”

Sparky replied the fastest. “Yes!”

Erasmus followed suit with, “Absolutely.”

Sparky explained her affirmative answer. “Erasmus and I were in a very similar situation in Paris, walking unarmed into the warehouse storing EPACTs. Monsieur Punaise set his metal bugs on us without hesitation. If it weren’t for the fast work of Erasmus and Jonathan Lord Ashleigh, the EPACTs would have harmed more of me than the hem of my dress.”

The sergeant looked thoughtful for a second, and nodded his agreement. “Excellent evaluation of the situation. I believe the best thing we can do is to get back and gather up a force that can handle this situation. Given the contents of Reginald Wallace’s letter, we cannot allow them to continue any longer.”

Monsieur Punaise put his hands on his hips in indignation and stared at the sorrowful Mr. Martin. He looked back with sad eyes. “Do we have to destroy them?”

“Meester Mar-teen. Zeeze are not pets!”

“It’s not that,” he whined. “We’ve worked so hard to build them and get them working. I just don’t want to have them … damaged.”

“Zey are just a product. Zey need testing. Prepare to start zem up.”

Mr. Martin reluctantly slouched off to the control panel near the door. Monsieur Punaise walked over to Mr. Hedgely, who was verifying that the four Type 5s were ready. “Are zey ready?”

“Yes. I just need to finish filling their fuel boxes.”

Monsieur Punaise walked back to Mr. Martin. “Start zee test.” Mr. Martin’s finger hesitated over the brass control button on the console. “Now, Meester Mar-teen.”

“J. B., I have another observation,” Erasmus added to the conversation. “All thirty six Dragon’s Teeth have the same finish, even though they are made of unfinished iron. Not one of them has any rust on them. That means that they were manufactured within a short period of time. Even perhaps within the same day, and recently. Monsieur Punaise may be using the yard as a staging ground, and there may be more of these machines stored elsewhere. We need to take that into account if we come back with a larger...”

The sound of all thirty-six Dragon’s Teeth starting up drowned out Erasmus’ statement. All three instantly went into a crouch to prepare to run, duck, or fight. J. B. reacted by sprinting the few steps back to the hedge to peer through at the activity on the other side of the stream. The thirty-six Dragon’s teeth had all fired up and flexed their legs enough to prepare for movement. Sparky and Erasmus joined him in looking through the greenery.

Just like their legs, the Dragon’s Teeth shifted their barrels and spun their buzz saws in hideous synchronization. J. B. quietly commanded, “Move!” He backpedaled into the field, and with Sparky and Erasmus on his heels, they ran away from the imminent danger.

Three of the rows turned on the other three rows, and at the same time, they opened fire on each other. Saws took off legs, bullets rang out, denting bodies and disabling joints, the din was staggering.

The unceasing sound coaxed J. B., Sparky, and Erasmus to switch from a fast trot to a sprint. They were across the field faster than they would have expected. They had no idea that the volley wasn’t meant for them. They stopped at the far edge of the field, hands on knees, doubled over, gasping for breath. After a short recovery, they realized that they were standing on the dirt road that lead back to town. “Everyone whole?” Erasmus asked. J. B. and Sparky nodded. “Let’s go.”

The melee lasted only a minute. Bent and broken metal parts littered the lawn. The grass was scorched from hot fuel boxes blown open by close-range mortar rounds.

Mr. Martin started to walk toward the wreckage. “Stop,” Monsieur Punaise warned, freezing Mr. Martin in his tracks. “Unexploded ordnance.” Monsieur Punaise pulled a spyglass from his work belt and snapped it to its full length. “Two units left operational. A type 2 and a type 4.” Mr. Hedgely added, “That’s about 95% of units disabled.” Monsieur Punaise gave an uncharacteristic smile. “Send in the repair units.”

Mr. Hedgely pushed another brass button on the console and the four Dragon’s Teeth ran out of the barn and onto the field of devastation.

It took less than a quarter of a mile to make the sloppy squishing noises from their boots to go from annoying to funny to maddening. The three of them stopped, sat on a log, poured a small amount of muddy water out of their boots, and wrung out their socks as best they could. It didn’t help much. Every step toward town contributed to a moist aspirated syncopation that belayed the importance of the trip.

The distraction made Erasmus wish to himself, “I just want a warm pub, an open fire, and dry socks.”



HMA Brittania

Entry for August 5, 2012 Written by Katherine L. Morse

“I know just the place,” replied Fox, leading the way. The three abandoned any pretense of stealth. Not only did they expect that their three targets were back at the cottage, but they were too discomfited by the fully clothed wading expedition. At least Drake and McTrowell were. They struggled to keep up with the sergeant who was trained for such privation.

When they entered Ferguson’s Public House, the barman greeted them civilly, but with no indication that he knew any of them. “What can I get you?”

Fox turned to his soggy compatriots and pointed toward the hearth, “I’ll fetch us some food while you two dry out.” He didn’t need to ask them twice; they made straight for the two well-worn, but comfortable looking chairs nearest the fire. Once she had removed her sodden boots and had the soles of her feet pointed at the fire, Sparky looked over her shoulder at Fox standing at the bar. How long could it take to order food? She might have thought he and the barman were old friends from the length of their conversation, despite the barman’s attempt to appear nonchalant as he wiped down the bar. Just as well. It would give her an opportunity to have a few choice words with Drake.

“Chief Inspector,” Drake winced at the formality of the form of address she chose, “I agreed to accompany you today with the expectation that some explanation for your recent secrecy would be forthcoming. Quite to the contrary, it seems that there is even more I don’t know. While I am not, in general, inclined to delve into all your secrets, this secrecy put me in grave danger today. Either you will explain yourself, or I will return to London on the next train and that will be the last you see of me.”

Drake swallowed hard. He felt like an insect on a pin. He was sworn to secrecy about his business with Fox, but she had a point about putting her in danger. And he couldn’t bear the thought that today’s misadventure might be the last time he would see her. He cleared his throat and began to choose his words carefully when he heard the barkeeper say in an overly loud voice, “Good afternoon, Tavis. Pint o’ stout?”

Erasmus and Sparky turned in surprise, only to hear Fox reply in an equally loud voice, “Right, then, a ploughman’s, two lamb pasties, and three pints of ale.” He slapped his hand on the bar in an amicable signal that their business was complete and moved to join his companions near the fire. Drake looked at Fox plaintively like a cornered animal. McTrowell opened her mouth to demand an explanation from Fox, hoping he would be more forthcoming than Drake. Before she could utter a word, Fox held a finger up to his lips to silence her. He pretended to be unlacing his boots, but she could tell from the way he cocked his head that he was listening to the conversation at the bar.

The barkeeper continued in a raised voice, “How are things at your mum’s cottage? Any more strange goings on?”

The new patron followed his lead and very helpfully spoke loudly enough that the trio by the fire could hear the conversation if they stayed silent. “All tell yew Angus, thas noothing strenger on heaven end earth than whas happnin at tha cottage. All be glad to be shut o tha lot!” He took a stiff draught of his pint of oatmeal stout to emphasize his point.

“I do hope for your sake that will be soon.” Angus started pulling pints of ale as if they were discussing the weather or the crops.

“Na soon enough! I was daft to have tha Frenchman let by the week. Thank the laird he and his lot are shoovin off by the end of the week.”

Fox and Ferguson made meaningful eye contact. “Well, Tavis, you certainly are having a rough patch. How about another pint for all your troubles?”

Fox reached into his rucksack and withdrew a compact leather envelope from which he extracted a printed form on a piece of paper and a pencil. He scribbled rapidly for about a minute while Sparky and Erasmus observed, perplexed. When he finished, he folded the sheet in quarters, and returned the pencil to its rightful place before stowing the envelope back in his bag. The threesome sat in silence, drying their feet and waiting for their food while Fox held the mysterious message firmly in his hand.

A boy of about ten years appeared from the kitchen with a large wooden tray half full of food. He stopped at the bar where his father added the three pints to the tray. Despite the weight of the tray, he managed to deliver it smoothly to the party by the fire. While he was unloading the tray onto the low table between the chairs, Fox extracted a shilling from his pocket and folded the paper twice more until it was in sixteenths. Once the lad had finished delivering the bowls and mugs, Fox pressed the shilling and the paper into his hand. Evidently without any interest in either, the boy put both in his pocket and said, “Thank you, sir.” And he disappeared back to the kitchen with his empty tray.

Erasmus looked at Sparky with a look that he hoped she understood to mean that he had no more idea what was going on than she did. As hungry as they were, they turned immediately to their food and didn’t see young Neill Ferguson fly out the door like the place was on fire. They wolfed down their food, keeping an eye on their watches. It didn’t need to be said that none of them wanted to be stuck for the night. Sparky tested her boots. They were mostly dry, but they were going to need some serious attention with saddle soap after the train ride. She pulled them back on and laced them up. She asked Fox, “Was the whole meal only a shilling.”

He replied bluntly, “It’s been taken care of,” and walked out the door without checking to see whether she and Drake were following. He turned left toward the train station. Sparky sprinted to get ahead of Fox, no mean feat considering the state of her boots.

“Stop right there! I’m owed an explanation and unless I get one, I’m not getting on that train. I’ve more than half a mind to get on the next train going the opposite direction to visit my Auntie Catherine in Stirling, and leave you two to your mysterious mission.”

“Dr. McTrowell, allow me to remind you of your promise to Her Majesty at the meeting of the Order of the Thistle when you were in Stirling the last time.”

That stopped Sparky cold. How did he know about that? “How do you know about that?” No answer. “Are you Her Majesty’s ‘agent?’”

“I am not. However, I am his agent, and he will make himself known soon enough. We must return to London immediately. Your skills are required. The security of the empire depends on all of us.” And then he made that same annoying, self-assured maneuver of heading to the train station and expecting them to follow. This time, Drake shrugged at her to make it perfectly clear that he was just as baffled as she was.

Once they were settled in their private compartment for the trip back to London, Fox said to them. “We’ll meet tomorrow morning at Wellington Arch at eight o’clock. Plan to be away for a few days. Dr. McTrowell, you will require your flying kit. I suggest you both get as much sleep as possible, as there may little time for such luxuries for the next few days.” And he proceeded to do just that. Drake just shook his head.

As annoying as she found Fox’s military attitude, she found no reason to believe he was being untruthful. She strongly suspected she was going to regret getting involved in this, but she had cast her lot during that fateful meeting with Queen Victoria in the casement of Stirling Castle. She removed her boots and leaned back into the upholstered corner of her seat to do her best to nod off for the long trip back.

Sparky presented herself, as ordered, at precisely eight o’clock the next morning at the arch between Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace Gardens. She was dressed in her aviator’s cap, goggles, and leather duster, her tool belt loaded up with various navigational aids. Her Gladstone bag contained a few clean articles of clothing and her physician’s field kit. She was just removing her four-button gloves to tuck them in her belt when Drake and Fox rounded the corner of the monument. Fox had his weathered rucksack over his shoulder and Drake was toting a leather satchel. Fox jerked his head in the direction of the palace. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

They walked into the grove at the edge of the grounds. They weren’t more than a few yards in when two more aerial marines materialized from behind a couple of trees. They saluted Sergeant Fox and disappeared back to their posts. They walked a few dozen more yards before they came to a tall flat-board fence that was painted in trompe-l'œil to look like more of the grove. Fox rapped a complex tattoo on the fence and section swung inward to admit them. It was a gate with no handle on the outside. That meant that someone was always on guard inside the disguised fence’s perimeter. Which also meant that someone wanted to keep secret whatever was hidden inside.

And it was dazzling, quite literally. “What is that!?”

“Dr. McTrowell, I would expect you to recognize an airship.” Sarcasm from Sergeant Fox, now she’d had two stunning surprises already this morning. The craft’s enormous size and the scores of propellers took her aback. It was undoubtedly the airship one would build if cost were no object. But there was an additional wonder.

“Yes, but never one that…color.”

“This is Her Majesty’s Airship Brittania. It’s being refitted for our mission. It used to be green on the top and black on the bottom.” She raised her eyebrows. “Although no one is allowed to fly over Buckingham Palace, the green was meant to camouflage it against the trees.”

“Why go to all that trouble and then paint it black on the bottom? It would look like a giant beetle against the sky.”

“Not at night.” He waited for that idea to sink in. “Its very existence is a secret. Until now, it has only ever flown in the dark. How do you think Her Majesty met you in Stirling and returned without anyone noticing her absence?”

Sparky made a mental note to herself never to try to put one over on the queen again. That one, she was clever. As they were talking and walking, they had approached the airship enough for Sparky to get a closer look at the envelope. It seemed to be changing color as her perspective changed. An idea dawned on her. And then a recent memory tickled at her brain. “You’ve been to Carlisle quite a bit of late, haven’t you?”

“Yes, I have.”

Drake interrupted. “Would one of you please explain what you’re talking about?”

“Do you remember when I told you that I saw the sergeant follow Miss Sarah Slate and Mr. Charles Howgill onto a train in Carlisle?”

“Yes, you drew it on your graph.”

She pointed straight up at the dazzling fabric of the envelope. “This is what he was pursuing. This is the fabric Miss Slate designed and Mr. Howgill built a mill to produce.” She turned back to Fox. “Is there more of this fabric, or is this all of it?”

“There is more of it. And we have all of it.”

“Of course you do. And who is ‘we’ in that sentence?”

“This will be made clear shortly.”

It was all Sparky could do not to stamp her feet like a five year old who’d been told she couldn’t have another boiled sweet because one was plenty, thank you. Erasmus thought he might have to throw his cape coat to put out the fire. The situation was rescued by a female voice calling from the direction of the aft section of HMA Brittania.

“Dr. McTrowell is that you? I thought I recognized your coat.” And who should come walking toward them but none other than Miss Sarah Slate! “Chief Inspector Drake, good day.”

Sparky tried to calm herself so as not to subject Sarah to her ire. “Have you been hired to help with this…” she waved her arm a little futilely to indicate the giant sky chameleon looming over them.

“Yes, isn’t it exciting? We’re just laying on the last strips at the back. Come see!”

Before following Miss Slate, Sparky fixed Drake and Fox with a deadly look that clearly conveyed, “It seems everyone knows what’s going on except me…including the other American.”

Sarah, absorbed in her work and oblivious to the non-verbal exchange, continued walking and talking. “Charles and I were very surprised when we received such a large order for my color changing fabric, but the purchaser paid in full in advance, so we made the full run. It was all very mysterious because they asked for it to be completely covered before it left the mill and it was collected in a closed lorry after the mill closed for the day. I was making wedding plans and I didn’t think anything else of it until about two weeks ago when I was called ‘here.’ Well, it’s more complicated than that. It’s all very mysterious.”

Sparky thought to herself, “I’m having that feeling quite a lot lately.”

“They were having difficulty getting the fabric to lay flat without wrinkles and the seams to match invisibly.” By then they had reached the rear section of the ship and were standing under a warren of scaffolding where crews were working rapidly to cover the remainder of the envelope. Sparky could just see the last bit where the top was still green and the bottom still black.

“Why do the seams have to match?”

“So it will invisible during the day,” Sarah replied, as if it were as obvious as the sky above them.

“Invisible?!”

“Well, I exaggerated a bit. The color shifting fabric makes it look like the sky. It works particularly well against the grim English sky.”

“Why does it need to fly during the day?”

“They won’t tell me that. I think it has something to do with the reason you and Chief Inspector Drake are here.” Sparky felt a tiny bit better. She wasn’t they only one left in the dark.

Sensing that it might be safe again to approach, Fox joined them. “Dr. McTrowell, you’re needed on the bridge.”

With her attention no longer focused on the envelope as she retraced her steps down the length of the ship, she took the time to inspect the gondola. It was remarkably stark and plain for a ship expressly designed to convey Her Imperial Majesty The Queen-Empress. But then, it was meant to be functional. No doubt the interior was elegantly appointed. Just as they approached the gangway, an apparatus attached to the hull caught Sparky’s eye. It was mounted on a swiveling mechanism and it looked somewhat like a gun, but it had large perforations in the side of the barrel that would have made it useless for firing bullets. Nor was there anywhere to load bullets, just a tube leading back to a large tank. She had seen this device before. She closed her eyes and tried to place it in its previous surroundings. Pogue’s lab!

“Where did you get this? Is Pogue here?” She looked around frantically, but she already knew the answer. He had just arisen and was still eating breakfast when she left his home this morning. Unless he had some transportation device that defied the laws of physics, he couldn’t be here. Was she the last person to know everything?

“We ‘acquired’ it. Dr. Pogue is not here and has not ever been.”

Well, that was a bit of a relief. On the scale of her recently acquired friends, she knew quite a bit less than Drake, a little less than Miss Slate, but more than Dr. Pogue. At least Jonathan Lord Ashleigh didn’t know any of it.

“What is it?”

“Are you familiar with Professor Edmund Davy of the Royal Dublin Society?”

“I have read his work lightly. Chemistry is not my field.”

“He discovered a new carburet of hydrogen. He proposed its use for lighting. Dr. Pogue has been experimenting with other uses.”

“Airships and gaseous hydrocarbons, what could possibly go wrong?”




Polished and Prepped

Entry for August 15, 2012 Written by David L. Drake

J. B. and Sparky got to the initial edge of the gangplank when two Royal Aerial Marines, in full regimental dress reds and carrying ceremonial spears marched across towards them. J. B. explained quietly to Sparky, “They are just formally escorting us aboard. Must maintain appearances, and all that.” Stopping just in front of them, both Marines performed a perfect turn, and lead them across the gangplank. Once onboard, the Marines retook their posts, and J. B. lead the way to the bridge.

Erasmus was already there, hunched over the charts for the Carlisle area, obviously determining his concept for what would make the correct aerial position for approach to the cottage and the barn. At the helm was a tall mustachioed Marine in full Aerial Pilot uniform. He was making a status request regarding aft engines through one of three gleaming brass voicepipes that were available to him.

J. B. and Sparky joined Erasmus. He pointed to the field on the far side of the stream from the barn, and stated, “I’ve been told that we have a full squad of sixteen Marines on board. I wanted to get a feeling for the best place to deploy. This is the best location for such a large craft, but then we’ll have the same issue of wading across the stream. Well, maybe we could deploy over here, behind the cottage …”

“Dr. McTrowell?” A young Marine stood at attention in the doorway. Sparky, as well as Erasmus and J. B., turned and noticed the youthful military man. “Chief Inspector Drake, Sergeant Fox, may I escort the three of you to the Royal Hall?” It was one of those polite orders disguised as a question. J. B. gave the obligatory response, “Yes, of course. Lead the way.”

The Marine set a quick steady pace that Erasmus and J. B. had no issue with keeping up, but Sparky had to push her normal pace a bit. She silently hoped this wasn’t a long walk. It reminded her of a fellow she once knew that insisted on being one step ahead of her wherever they went. But that was a long time ago.

This was unlike any airship she had been on before. It had two wide hallways on each edge of the main deck;
promenades if you will. They were currently being lead in the aft direction on the port side of the craft. On their right were large windows. Despite being covered by the camouflaging material, one could still easily see out. On their left, the interior side of the promenade, was a series of beautifully varnished doors with gleaming brass fittings. Between the doors hung portraits of royalty and distinguished military men. Sparky caught herself glancing at incredibly rendered artwork as they hurried to their destination.

At mid-ship, the lead Marine turned left and headed down another wide hallway toward the heart of the deck. The trio followed. In front of them was an elaborately decorated double door, with another two Marines guarding it. The guards opened the doors in a well-timed manner as they approached, allowing them to enter without breaking their stride. They marched up to the middle of the Royal Hall, where their lead halted, turned, gave J. B. a snappy salute, and marched back out of the double doors. The doors closed.

Both Sparky and Erasmus could not help but gasp. The room was expansive for one on an airship. Sparky guessed that it was two decks high, an unimaginable luxury for a flying craft. The wallpaper was a deep royal blue, showing a raised flocked pattern of golden lilies encircling crowns. The carpet was a grand burgundy red, with hashes of gold and blue. In front of them was a velvet-covered chair, also in burgundy and gold, that was on a carpeted dais. Other than the chair, the room was devoid of furniture, as if it were for assemblage, but with a few touches, could be used for a great number of things, including parties.

The door opened again, and the same Marine entered. Sparky gasped. He was escorting Dr. Yin Young! She was dressed for battle as a Marine, with her outfit tailored for a woman, which Sparky thought was both flattering and functional. The Marine turned and headed out the way he came in.

Yin broke the silence. “Welcome aboard Her Majesty’s Airship Brittania, Dr. McTrowell and Chief Inspector. I hope you find it comfortable.”

Erasmus smiled and replied, “How could we not? It’s an awe-inspiring wonderment. Did you have a hand in its preparation?”

“Only some of its recently installed artillery. But I have traveled on her as a sentinel and scout.”

“Well, your skills will be appreciated for this …”

A pair of side doors opened and another two Marines stepped in, announcing “Her Majesty, the Queen!”

Queen Victoria entered the room, and the room changed. Quiet. Serious. Reverent. She walked directly to the dais and her chair. The two Marines backed out of the room with a bow, closing the doors behind them.

She stepped up the dais, and without ceremony, sat. She looked across the team assembled in front of her for a second, and fixed her gaze on J. B.

“Sergeant Fox, your telegram from Carlisle was both timely and informative. The timetable for outfitting our Brittania was accelerated to meet your request. You are to lead this mission; the squad aboard is yours to command. You may begin your mission after we disembark. Please remember our ultimate goal. The Empire is counting on you to not deviate from our objective. Good luck and God speed.”

Sergeant Fox performed a formal bow, adding a quiet, “Yes, your Majesty.”

Queen Victoria’s eyes then fixed on Erasmus. “Chief Inspector Drake, we understand congratulations are in order. Sergeant Fox reports that you, with help from your associates, were the first to locate and report the whereabouts and circumstances of Monsieur Punaise and his confederates. While others at Her Majesty’s Eyes and Ears have failed in this mission, you have persevered.” She flashed a cursory smile, but Erasmus knew that it was a formality, a type of royal punctuation that marked that things had gone the way she wanted, as opposed to her being exuberantly pleased. “So that’s what she calls our band of agents,” he thought, “Her Majesty’s Eyes and Ears. How fitting.”

Imitating Sergeant Fox, he bowed low and quietly stated, “Yes, your Majesty.”

The queen then turned to Sparky, who couldn’t help but think, “I’ve seen a great deal of this monarch lately!” The queen cocked her head slightly before addressing the American, as if she was still studying this type of creature. “Dr. McTrowell, you have proven yourself as a skilled airship pilot when under duress. You would make an excellent pilot for this mission.”

“May I ask a question?” Sparky’s voice forced a crack into the formality of the gathering. The men’s eyebrows rose in surprise. Their spines stiffened. This wasn’t the person that you have a give-and-take conversation with.

The queen moved her hand in a small gesture that beckoned Sparky to proceed.

“When can I find out what is going on?”

“Sergeant Fox will brief you on the mission as you are underway.”

“Do I have a choice in my participation?”

The queen smiled in a way that hinted at a smirk. “We have the best of brokered circumstances: the Empire can provide something you want; you can provide something the Empire wants. Is there even a need to quibble over terms? We think not.”

Without waiting for a reply from the stunned flight surgeon, the queen rose, turned, left the dais, and walked toward the side doors. The doors were opened precisely at the right time by their guards, and the queen was gone.

When the side doors closed, Erasmus and Sparky had just enough time to look at each other in amazement when the doors behind them reopened and the two Marines stationed there approached to escort all four of them out of the Royal Hall.

Sergeant Fox had his command voice ready. “Dr. McTrowell, before you return to the bridge, there is something I wish to show you. Chief Inspector and Dr. Young, I want to confer with you on the bridge when we get underway. You both, as well as Dr. McTrowell, have first-hand experience with dealing with these ‘Dragon’s Teeth.’ I will want to put that knowledge to use in our plan of attack.”

Their walk had gotten the team to the promenade, where a gentleman in a dark grey redingote was standing, waiting for them. For Erasmus, his fancy attire stood out from the buttoned-down garments of the British military. The man’s upstanding shirt collar was far higher than the current fashion in London, and showed the sheen of fine linen. He wore his pure white neckcloth tied in what the dandies on High Street would call ‘regency style,’ where the body of the bow was full and puffy. His vertical striped cream vest had wide lapels. Who could this possibly be?

The flamboyant man took a relaxed step forward. “Chief Inspector Drake. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Jean Chemiserouge, your counterpart from France.”

Erasmus extended his hand, adding “Pleased to meet you.” Monsueir Chemiserouge took Erasmus’ hand in the lightest of grasps; three fingertips across two fingers at best. After the initial touch, the hold was broken; superficial and fleeting. Erasmus had to resist the temptation to request another handshake, one that had meaning. Instead, he pressed forward in the conversation. “My counterpart, you say? May I ask if you can extrapolate? Oh, and your English is impeccable.”

“Thank you. My schooling is showing, I’m afraid. As for my role, I have been invited by the Empire to be the French emissary. Upon his apprehension, I am to deal with Monsuier Puniase’s deportation. Let us hope that we are successful.”

“Will you be aiding us in the arrest?”

Monsueir Chemiserouge yanked his head back a small theatrical amount. “Oh, my no. I will leave that to you and your company. I will be escorting, nothing more.”

“Fair enough. Please excuse us, for we need to make our final preparations. Good day, sir.”

J. B. turned to Erasmus and continued his instructions. “Erasmus, please follow me and Sparky. I want you to know about this, too. It will only be a few minutes.”

The three of them walked further to the aft of the airship. After a couple minutes, J. B. approached a door with a brass lettering above it spelling out “Infirmary.” J. B. turned the knob, and holding the door open, offered Sparky and Erasmus entrance.

Inside, Sparky let out a happy squeak, as if seeing an old friend unexpectedly. There in the middle of the room was her mechanical surgeon’s assistant, polished and prepped for use. A shaft issuing from an opening in the wall was connected to the base, which was already spinning at operational speed, although there was no annoying engine sound. The power plant must be farther away than she was used to.

Erasmus smiled at her joy. Maybe she’ll see a bright side to this brokered abduction.

She turned and, without a hint of irony, said, “Okay. Now I ready to enlist in your operation.”

The three left and headed back toward the bridge. Erasmus thought to himself, “Well, for her, and her alone, I know what makes this woman happy.”



Stealth and the Lack Thereof

Entry for August 23, 2012 Written by Katherine L. Morse

Sparky spent the flight north observing HMA Brittania’s pilot, Captain Cox. One didn’t need Drake’s deductive skills to determine that he was not pleased with the idea of being relegated to back up once the actual mission was engaged. She stayed out of his way and spent the time profitably assessing his touch on the controls. She wouldn’t have the luxury of learning their feel; one mistake could be fatal to herself and the others on board.

When Captain Cox wasn’t actively piloting the ship, Sparky distracted herself by watching the countryside pass below. At one point they passed over a small clutch of grazing cows. Although Brittania was a relatively quiet airship, she wasn’t entirely silent. The cows perked up a bit when they heard the approach. One actually looked skyward as the shadow of the envelope passed over it like a fast-moving cloud. Admittedly, cows aren’t the brightest of creatures, but Sparky struggled to stifle a giggle when this particular bovine free-thinker looked at the sky, looked back at the shadow sweeping over it, squinted back up at the sky, then gave up and went back to grazing. Captain Cox was not amused.

Once they got close to Carlisle, Sparky went aft to join the company for Fox’s final briefing. “Wings will jump from the starboard platform; sails from the port. We don’t want any tangles.” Sails? Sparky recognized the extendible wing apparatus worn by two of the fire teams and Fox. They were identical to the one he had employed so effectively during the Bavarian Airship Regatta. But the mention of sails confounded her. The other two fire teams as well as Drake and Young were wearing some kind of rucksacks attached to their torsos by harnesses with multiple, snug straps.

“Dr. McTrowell, once we jump, you will keep Brittania at the ready to extract us, but out of range.”

She didn’t like the sound of any of this! Since Drake was wearing one of the rucksacks, he was obviously going to be “jumping.” “Out of range of what?”

“Mortars.”

“And what would that range be?”

“Judging from the length of the barrel that we saw, I would say 2,000 horizontal yards.”

“Two thousand yards? That was more than a mile! Even taking into account the advantage of altitude, how was she supposed to return in time to save them if they got into serious trouble? “And how am I to ‘extract’ you without a mooring tower?”

“Private Jones,” he indicated a boy who didn’t look old enough to shave, “will operate the platform hoist. Gunner Hepburn,” who looked old enough to shave, but not old enough to hold his drink, “will cover our egress with the flame cannon.”

Flame cannons and platform hoists. She was pretty sure she’d considered the perils of the former before boarding. The dangers of the latter would, no doubt, reveal themselves in time. She barely managed to squeeze out a, “Very well,” before retreating to the bridge.

She was just recognizing the Carlisle train station when she heard Sergeant Fox’s command over the voice pipe, “Dr. McTrowell, please bring us in from the south at a speed of five knots and an altitude of 1,000 yards.”

McTrowell reached to take the controls from Captain Cox. The look on his face suggested he would rather have bitten her hands off at the wrist than let her have the controls. She briefly reconsidered the value of her membership in the Order of the Thistle. As she ought to have expected, HMA Brittania was the smoothest handling airship she had ever had the fortune to steer. The gentlest touch sent her on a new course with grace and precision. She was indeed the finest that unlimited money could buy. Sparky shook herself out of her reverie to focus on her critical task in this mission. She was retracing their route along St. Aidan’s Road. Had that only been yesterday?

The Dragon’s Teeth were right where they’d been the day before, neatly standing in rows in the yard. As soon as she’d cleared the barn, she climbed and banked starboard. She gasped at the tableau that revealed itself. The winged fire squads had deployed like a flock of pelicans flying in V formation along the top of a cresting wave. The “sails” looked like dandelion seeds snowing down to the ground. Once Sparky recovered from the visual poetry of the sight, she realized the apparatus was very similar to the one that Lord Ashleigh had improvised out of the silk throws in his cabin aboard the Burke & Hare. Somebody hadn’t wasted any time converting the prototype into a useful military tool. The sails obscured their passengers, so she couldn’t tell which one was Drake. But they all landed safely, a few by bumping along their backsides once or twice before coming to a halt and extricating themselves from the harnesses. She set a circular holding pattern just “out of range” as ordered by Sergeant Fox.

The Marines formed up at the edge of the yard. Sparky switched between chewing her lower lip and her cuticles as she watched. Because the Marines were all wearing uniforms, she could tell easily that Drake wasn’t among them, just Yin in her black pajamas. She must have shed the uniform in favor of her less restrictive
gi pajamas. But where was Drake? Nothing moved on the ground, which did nothing to steady Sparky’s pounding heart. Her two previous encounters with Monsieur Punaise’s pernicious mechanical minions only strengthened her certainty that something horrific was about to ensue, and she would be returning the helm to Captain Cox while she strapped into the mechanical surgical assistant. Please, not Erasmus. She didn’t know if her hands would be steady enough to do what would be necessary.

She was snapped out of her ominous ruminations by movement on the ground. The Marines had deployed themselves into two semi-circular flanking lines. Those armed with the latest Enfield Pattern 1851 rifles alternated with others wielding good old-fashioned fire axes. Rather than attacking the Dragon’s Teeth, the Marines were cautiously circling the neat ranks, one flank toward the cottage and one toward the barn.

Drake gave himself one last pat down to ensure that nothing on his person would make the slightest unexpected noise. He’d learned his lesson in Paris about Punaise’s creations. They might be as nearsighted as a wild pig, but their hearing was as keen as a hare’s. He hadn’t shinnied through a tight spot like the hole cut in the side of the barn for the drainpipe since his childhood days untangling rigging. After wriggling through the opening, he slid silently around the pipe and settled into a hay-filled corner, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darker interior. It didn’t take long because this particular barn was nowhere near as dark as the ones he’d explored during his summers at the country estate of Edwin Llewellyn. This one was lit up like the factory it truly was.

He counted six stations, each connected to the overhead belt system leading to an enormous steam engine from which the drainpipe issued. At least he needn’t worry about making noise. There was already plenty of that to cover him. But there were no human workers in the factory. Parked next to each station was a Dragon’s Tooth of the same design as the one that they had battled in Pogue’s basement. All six were rapidly and efficiently assembling another Dragon’s Tooth, one of each design including another assembler. The enormity of the situation nearly knocked the breath out of Drake. That’s how Punaise had assembled so many so quickly. He was bootstrapping his production!

In addition to the belts, each station was connected to a central, raised station by a narrow, winding chute. And there, on the central platform, was the man himself, gleefully observing his destructive enterprise in action. Drake wracked his brains. How were they going to capture Punaise while he was surrounded by his armored army? Drake feared the only recourse might be to just blow up the entire structure with the inventor inside. As much as Drake loathed the man’s amoral actions, he thought killing himself was an extreme solution. He was mentally cataloging every access route to the control center when he heard a tremendous racket in the yard.

The two formations of Marines had nearly reached the cottage and the barn when the Dragon’s Teeth sprang to life. The soldiers and cutters fanned out, attacking both lines of Marines at once. Fortunately, the Dragon’s Teeth soldiers were slow to slew their guns around, so only a couple of Marines were wounded rather than being slaughtered. Unfortunately, return fire bounced benignly off their iron skins.

Fox bellowed, “Axes and stay low!” The Marines bearing rifles dropped them and unslung their own axes.

The battle attracted Punaise’s attention as well. He swung around to face the open door of the barn. Drake watched an expression of rage cross the face of his adversary to be replaced almost immediately by one of ecstatic madness. Punaise began working frantically, although Drake couldn’t quite make out everything he was doing. He turned his back to Drake and began moving his hands over a control panel. After only a moment of this task, he bent down to retrieve something from below the control panel that he placed at a workstation next to the control panel. His next action was more physical and repetitive, some sort of part task. Six times he moved something from one side of the table to the other, pausing in the middle to operate a large lever that looked like a press. Drake had a clearer view of the final step of the process. Punaise held six shiny disks in his left hand. He rolled each edgewise into one of the six chutes leading to the six assembly stations.

The Marines were having considerably more success with the axes. Their superior maneuverability allowed them to duck in between the lines of soldiers and cutters, severing their barrels and blades, or just hacking some into much smaller parts. Although they were still mobile, without their armaments they just chugged helplessly in circles. A few began to slow down and wheeze hotly. Fox assessed the situation. “Fire squads one and two, keep these things contained. Fire squad three, search the cottage and barn for our human targets. Fire squad four, field dress the wounded and signal for Brittania. Dr. Young, you’re with me.”

Just as the Marines began to regroup, the snouted and wheeled Dragon’s Teeth fired up. The Marines dropped to the ground and readied their axes. The snouted machines headed to the well, the wheeled ones toward a woodpile near the cottage. “Hold your positions, men!”

Having read the initial intelligence report, Fox wasn’t completely surprised by the actions of the Dragon’s Teeth at the well. They filled up with water and made for their overheating brethren, refilling their empty boilers. Their water bearing duties completed, they returned to their original stations. The lorries loaded their cargo bins with wood and replenished the sluggish Dragon’s Teeth before reforming near the water bearers. Although some of the fighting machines were now more active, they were still unarmed. “Stand down!”

Inside the barn, Drake heard the battle wind down. Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard as he feared. One of the disks rolled to a halt at the assembly station nearest him, sliding neatly into a slot in the side of the assembler. The assembler froze instantly. Drake’s stomach dropped. He remembered seeing a smaller version of the disk in Pogue’s basement. This wasn’t going to be as hard as he had originally imagined; it was going to be much harder.

The assembler detached itself from its station and made for the barn door simultaneously with the other five. Drake was torn. Without the assemblers to defend him, Punaise was vulnerable. But the Marines were even more vulnerable. They had no idea what was coming at them! When Punaise turned to watch the exodus, Drake scrambled back out the way he’d entered.

When the assemblers exited the barn, the Marines were more prepared than they had been for the water bearers and refuelers. These new contraptions were unarmed, so the Marines let them inside the perimeter so they could be guarded.

Drake sprinted around from the back of the barn, “Stop them!” Too late! The assemblers had already succeeded in reconstructing three soldiers and two cutters from the parts of eight damaged and destroyed ones. Hearing the alarm in Drake’s voice, Fox sprang up from where he and Yin had been selectively collecting parts.

“Fall back! Fall back!” The Marines dispersed, sprinting for the cover of the trees. By the time the company reached St. Aidan’s Road, fire squad four had succeeded in signaling Brittania, which was hovering a hundred feet off the ground. Fox reached above his head and opened and closed his fist twice. To Drake’s surprise, a section of the gondola’s hull detached itself and appeared to drift down toward them. The section halted a couple of feet off the ground, bobbing and swaying on the cables on its corners as McTrowell worked to keep Brittania on station. Without prompting, fire squad four loaded the wounded onto the platform.

“Regroup on Warwick Road. Drake, you’re with us.” Fox and Young hoisted two heavy, canvas wrapped bundles onto the platform before hopping aboard themselves. Drake joined them without further prompting.

Despite having just jumped out of this same airship with little more than a bedsheet to support his descent, the swaying of the platform made him a little queasy. He searched for a handhold. The cable at the nearest corner was greasy and too close to the edge for his comfort. There was a row of fasteners or grommets around the perimeter just inside the cables, but they barely qualified as fingerholds.

“What is the purpose of this…apparatus?”

“Her Majesty employs it to disembark when she travels at night and doesn’t want to attract attention at a mooring tower.”

“You lower the sovereign of the realm on this contraption in the dark!?”

“It has a guard rail and a safety harness when she is aboard.”

McTrowell surveyed the state of the approaching board party. “Captain Cox, Brittania is yours.”

“As it should be.”

Sparky took one look at the returning party. “Let’s get the wounded into the infirmary. And take that monstrosity there, too. We can dissect it on the surgical bed, although I’d rather imagined that I would be using that more for it’s intended purpose. Keep the pieces far apart and yell at the first sign that one of the pieces so much as twitches.” The young Marines gave Sparky a very queer look, but they were well trained to follow orders and so they did.

Once in the infirmary, she glanced inside the tarp before turning her attention to the casualties. What she saw made her gasp, “
This changes everything!



Green Grass, Brown Well

Entry for September 9, 2012 Written by David L. Drake

The woods were cool and shady compared to the warmth of the open area near the barn. Despite the pleasant setting, a drip of sweat ran down Mr. Martin’s face as he toiled in his leather overalls. He was bent down over a Dragon’s Tooth, overseeing the tightening of a nut on a radial saw. Mr. Hedgely stood by and hovered a pencil above his clipboard, waiting to check off the verification of the last of the metal contraptions. As Mr. Martin labored, Mr. Hedgely let his mind wander, taking in the cool calmness of the woods as the nearby stream gurgled, and imagined a more serene life than that of their hectic and quirky business.

Mr. Martin twisted his head around and declared with confidence, “The assemblers did an absolutely wonderful job of putting these back together. I never thought it was possible. With the exception of a few loose nuts, they are as good as when they left the barn. Do you want to perform any additional testing? Cut down a few trees?”

Mr. Hedgely looked across the rows of Dragon’s Teeth stretching throughout the shaded grove. He had grown tired of testing and re-testing. “No, I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Mr. Martin twisted and sat on the loose leaves carpeting the ground. “I wonder if we should have used linear saws rather than radial. Linear would have been harder to transport, but would have made it possible cut down larger trees.”

“Hmmph.” Mr. Hedgely showed his indifference.

“I’ve got a question. Why did Monsieur Punaise name them ‘Dragon’s Teeth?’ It just doesn’t seem to fit their form or function.”

“Ahh, my engineer friend. You haven’t done your classics homework. Didn’t you read about Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece? The myth arises from a canonical Phoenician legend. One of their princes, Cadmus, as it is told, killed a sacred dragon. The goddess Athena told the prince to sow the teeth on the ground, and when he did, a warrior would grow from each. He used these men to help build the citadel of Thebes. The hero Jason also got some of the teeth, sowed them, but then had to defeat the warriors that appeared by himself. Monsieur Punaise was captivated with contraptions that repaired other contractions. Something springing forth from the scraps of the perished. Cute, huh?”

“Interesting but overly cerebral. Cute in a morbid way, if such a thing exists.”

A series of rifle reports echoed through the glen, stopping the progress of their labors. Mr. Hedgely looked at Mr. Martin quizzically. “Why would Monsieur Punaise be testing the soldiers again?”

The sound changed, and the distant clanging of metal on metal was added. Mr. Hedgely spun in place, adding “What the ...?” He sprinted to the edge of the trees overlooking the cottage mill; Mr. Martin right behind him. The battle was already underway below. Uniformed Marines were swinging axes, knocking heads and arms off of the metal brutes.

“We must get down there!” Mr. Martin cried out.

“Ahh, my brave friend, not us, but rather our machines. What could we mortals do that our goddess’ Dragon’s Teeth could not do better?” He smiled at his own cleverness. “How many can we send down there?”

Mr. Martin stopped panicking, and started mentally counting, including helpful head bobs as he performed his tally. “Fifty ... no, sixty cutters, twenty wagons, and forty mortars. But the mortars have no ammunition. The cutters aren’t as fast as the soldiers, but for hand-to-hand, they’re much more deadly. Should I signal them to head in? Wait … what am I saying?! Those are the Royal Aerial Marines! Our own countrymen are down there!”

They both looked again at the battle. Mr. Hedgely wrinkled his brow. “Why are the Marines doing that?” He emphasized his question by pointing at the maneuvers on the field.

Some of the Marines had broken off and ran toward the buildings. “Wait ... They are trying to get to the barn. And the cottage. They must be after Monsieur Punaise. Well, I say let them have him!”

Mr. Martin quickly agreed by exclaiming, “You will get no argument from me!”

They shared grim smiles at the opportunity to free themselves from Monsieur Punaise.

Mr. Hedgely then peered more closely at the scene below. “How did they get here? Where did the Marines come from?” They both looked around, looking for signs of troop movement across the fields or the road. Then an oddly square hole opened in the grey sky out of which a platform lowered.

Mr. Martin saw the strange phenomenon first. “My stars! There’s a giant airship right there!” He pointed wildly across a wide swath of the sky over the field.

“I don’t see it … oh, yes! There it is! It looks likes it’s covered in mirrors and reflects the sky itself. It’s practically invisible! How
did they do that?”

Sparky’s knew her priorities. She stepped swiftly into the surgical assistant, strapped in, and took on her first patient’s bullet removal. Erasmus sprinted into the infirmary. “Sorry for the delay, I had to brief J. B. on the situation in the barn. What did you find out … oh my!”

Sparky glanced up briefly from her medical work. “Oh, I forgot that it has been awhile since you last observed me doing this type of work, and that was with cadavers. Even doing our best, surgery is … messy work. We can thank Dr. Crawford Long for the use of this misted ether.” She pointed her eyes quickly at the crooked hose above the patient. “Without it, this young man would … well, let me just say this entire process would hurt a great deal more.” She dropped the spherical bullet she had removed from the young Marine’s upper thigh into a metal dish with a clank, and immediately started cleaning and closing the wound. Within a few seconds she had secured a neat row of sutures and had moved her attention to the same patient’s arm wound. All the while, the surgical assistant provided multiple metal helping hands. A suction tool kept the bleeding from obscuring her work. Two arms with forceps held wounds closed both before and after Sparky’s handiwork, and a parabolic-mirrored gaslight provided an intense illumination on her area of interest. It may have been this illumination that startled Erasmus, Sparky thought. It’s one thing to see a wounded man, but quite another to visually highlight the ragged damage.

A few feet away, another surgeon worked his trade on another wounded Marine. Erasmus noticed that, despite their age, they were a tough lot. Within a minute, Sparky dropped another shot into the metal bowl, and finished closing up her first patient. The third and last of the injured Marines walked on his own over to her table and sat down. He had a rough laceration on his shoulder. He was doing his best to staunch the bleeding with his hand, but it needed immediate attention.

Sparky’s voice was authoritative. “Can you sit as still as possible for me? It would be best it we don’t lay you down. Turn your head to the right, away from the wound, bite down on this towel, and I’ll work as quickly as possible. It may help to shut your eyes.” With the towel in place and his head turned, four metal arms descended on the shoulder. The work was fast and meticulous. Clamping. Cleaning. Unclamping, Suction. Cleaning. Interior sutures. Suction. Exterior sutures. Dressing. Bandaging. The patient moved nary a twinge, and with the exception of a very quiet groan and a single tear, he showed not a sign of suffering.

“Get yourself outfitted with a sling. I want that arm immobilized so the stitches hold and the muscle heals.” The patient looked at Sparky and mumbled something. Sparky continued, “You can spit that towel in here.” She pointed to the bucket on the floor that had other bloodstained cloths in it. He followed her advice. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, and slid off the table.

Sparky wiped off her hands and turned to Erasmus, who had just turned his attention to the metal pieces under that tarp. “You came in to ask a question. What was it?”

Without looking up from the scraps, Erasmus replied, “Did you get to take a look at this?”

“Just a quick glance, but that was all I needed. Did you notice the disk?”

“Yes. And we both know what this means. They are just like the platters that control the EPACTs. I saw how the disks are delivered: Monsieur Punaise has a conveyor system to deliver a master disk to the assemblers. The assemblers duplicate them and courier them to the other working units. It creates of a chain of command. The only question is: what were Monsieur Punaise’s latest orders?”

J. B. burst through the door of the infirmary and tossed another of the rucksacks to Erasmus. “Chief Inspector, let’s go! Here’s your Sail.” Without waiting to even see if Erasmus caught the pack, J. B. turned, opened his wing apparatus as he sprinted, and leapt overboard.

Erasmus turned to Sparky. “I’ll be returning to the fray, it seems. Keep a light out for me.” He sprinted through the door, and as it swung back and forth, Sparky watched as Erasmus strapped into the Sail, and leapt overboard. All she could think was, “I hope we’re high enough for that thing to work.” She turned and headed to the sink on the wall to give her hands a good scrubbing before returning to the bridge.

Erasmus stretched out his arms and legs as far as he could as soon as he cleared the railing. Looking down, it was obvious that HMA Brittania had returned to an altitude of 1,000 feet. He counted to three, as previously instructed, and then pulled hard on the cord that attached to the back of the pack. The tug broke the thread that held the cord in check, unleashing the contents of the knapsack. The sail had the feel of a “work in progress,” it did slow his fall, but it was still a heart-stopping, unbridled, out-of-control descent. Erasmus knew that he would land wherever the fates determined and that he would have to make the best of it. If the winds were favorable, the landing would have a bit of a horizontal aspect, so that running could be combined with the impact. That didn’t appear to be the case this time, Erasmus thought. He was spiraling down, his legs pointing slightly to the outside of his helical drop. Erasmus saw the well appear and disappear from his estimated impact point. All that stone and wood was an unappealing location to come down. He bent his knees and prepared for the corkscrewing earth that was rushing up at him. Green grass. Brown well. Green grass. Brown well. Gree … His legs were blasted up into his body with a force that he couldn’t stop. Erasmus took two rapid squat-legged steps forward and was hit in the gut with the stone hardness of the well, knocking out his breath and sending his Colt Pocket 1849 revolver out of his jacket and over the gaping mouth of the well, sliding across the grass on the far side. A previously quiescent Dragon’s Tooth wagon deftly scooped up the pistol with a front appendage and nonchalantly placed it into its bed. “Well,” he thought, “as soon as I can breathe again, I need to wrestle my weapon back from that automated lorry.”

As directed by J. B., the Royal Aerial Marines had fallen back and regrouped by St. Aidan’s Road. While the Marines waited and watched, the assemblers completed rebuilding most of the Dragon’s Teeth that the Marines had damaged with axes. The wagons provided the repaired contraptions with fuel and ammunition, the water bearers had refreshed their boilers, and the assemblers delivered new disks. It was as if a brand new set of adversaries were ready for another assault. And Erasmus had dropped into the middle of the pack.

Erasmus rubbed his sore abdomen and took slow deep breaths to recover from the impact. He was amazed that his legs and knees had withstood the landing, but he was sure that by tomorrow he might have a different opinion.

He looked at the waiting Dragon’s Teeth that encircled him. Would they attack if not provoked? He skirted the well, taking a few slow steps toward the gun-stealing wagon. When he was within a few feet, it reacted by turning its head, pointing its sensors directly at him.

“It can’t see well. Maybe if I look innocuous.” He slowly got down on all fours and crawled mechanically toward the wagon. It didn’t react! When within a couple of feet, Erasmus stopped and extended his left arm. The Dragon’s Tooth reached back with a fore appendage, deftly grabbed the pistol, and placed it into Erasmus’ open hand. “Stupendous!” he thought, “But I’ll never convince the Marines to crawl around like this. Now how do I retreat?”

He slowly slipped the revolver back inside his jacket. Reversing his all-fours crawl, he backpedaled methodically to the well. Then he heard the charge. The Marines poured in from the road, axes raised and primed for battle. Erasmus stood to make himself visible. At the same time, the thirty or so Dragon’s Teeth all turned their head towards the onslaught. And then they ran. All thirty of them. In every direction, except for the direction of the approaching Marines, they scattered outward. In doing so, one of the mortars got a hind leg tangled in Erasmus’ sail cloth. Unlike an animal, it simply carried on running, and the Chief Inspector was jerked off his feet, landing on the grass, and was dragged thirty-five yards before he could release his knapsack.

Erasmus jumped to his feet and surveyed the situation, trying to determine the best way he could help. Twenty or so Marines were now in the center of the lawn wielding axes. Their rifles scattered about from their first assault. The retreated Dragon’s Teeth stood watching from the periphery.

As if on cue, all sixteen soldier Dragon’s Teeth broke into a full sprint, rushing the Marines. Each picked a trajectory that allowed it to pass by the pack and keep running. The Marines’ instincts were to stay close, guarding one another. At the closest point to the Marines, the soldier Dragon Teeth all fired their rifles in unison. Sixteen bullets ripped into the crowd of uniformed men. Screams rang out and six men fell. The soldiers ran back to the periphery, and turned to make another pass.

Marines jumped over their fallen toward their rifles. Other scattered to prevent a recurrence of being pinned down. Erasmus knew that both axes and rifles were poor defenses against this new attack. “To the woods! Run!!”

The Marines had no time to react. Although the Marines had spread out, the next pass was executed with mechanical efficiency, the running metal soldiers firing their rifles in unison at their human counterparts. More men fell, but Erasmus couldn’t tell how many. “Run! Run!”

The battlefield now had bodies lying still on the grass, discarded rifles and axes scattered about, uniformed men running for cover, and gunpowder smoke lethargically dissipating. Erasmus said out loud to himself, “I can’t help here!” He looked to the barn and thought of the man inside controlling these killing machines.

He sprinted to the open barn door. Just inside, Erasmus stopped to squint and adjust his eyes to the indoors. He stumbled in to find Monsieur Punaise, hopefully putting a stop to this. That’s when he heard raised voices. Rather than rush in, he thought it best to keep his presence a secret. He crept forward, and discovered a most interesting scene.

J. B. was on the floor level with a rifle pointed at Monsieur Punaise, up on his raised platform. J. B. was livid. “Shut them down! Now!”

“Or what?” Monsieur Punaise laughingly replied. “You will zhoot me? Zat will not stop my little soldiers!”

Erasmus slowly pulled his revolver and looked about. Wrenches. Tools. A controller panel. Blank disks. Iron parts. He thought, “We are stopping this right now!” just as another round of rifle reports echoed from outside.



Danger Plus Opportunity

Entry for September 19, 2012 Written by Katherine L. Morse

Sparky watched the battle unfold in helpless horror. She had to do something to stop it! She had to do something to retrieve the wounded! “Captain Cox, we’re going in low to evacuate casualties.”

“Are you mad? Those monstrosities will fire on Brittania!”

“They’re only firing small rounds and they can’t aim very high. The worst they’ll do is put a few holes in the gondola.” She didn’t bother to mention the mortars; hopefully they wouldn’t be able to “see” the airship. The way Cox flapped his lips and grasped his chest, one would have thought she had suggested allowing the enemy to fire on Her Majesty in the flesh. “Or perhaps you would prefer to tell Her Majesty that you think her gunwales more dear than her Aerial Marines.” Although it was a wholly inappropriate time for humor, it occurred to Sparky that her comment might be interpreted as somewhat bawdy. No matter. Duty called.

On their next pass over the battlefield, she throttled back the engines and eased the ship lower. She shouted into the voicepipe, “Prepare the hoist!” She turned to Cox, “Do your best to hold her on station while we board the wounded.” She couldn’t tell if the look of deep offense on his face was because he interpreted her order to mean that she thought him incapable of the task, or because it sounded like she didn’t trust him to follow her orders.

No sooner had she relinquished the controls than she was reminded that hope was not a plan. The mortars began rotating on station. What were they doing? As Brittania approached, the activity of the mortars stopped mimicking the motion described by the biologist, Robert Brown, and took on an intentional aspect. They were orienting toward the approaching airship. How could that be? There was no way they could see it with their limited vision. The shadow! Brittania cast a shadow as it approached from the west. As they locked onto their target, they planted their spiked backsides into the ground.

“Pull up!” Captain Cox only looked at her grumpily. “Pull up, damn you!” She practically knocked him to the ground to grab the controls. The mortars fired in quick, synchronized succession. The first couple missed, but the third one grazed the airship before Sparky pulled her out of range.

“I trust you will explaining the condition of the gunwales to Her Majesty.” Sparky had half a mind to knock him to the floor again.

She grabbed the voicepipe again, “Dr. Young, please meet me in engineering.” “Captain Cox, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you to keep the ship out of range of those mortars.” She departed the bridge before he could answer because she was sure she didn’t want to hear it.

Sparky stopped in the infirmary first. She pulled back the tarp and rummaged recklessly through the scraps, finding only three of the punched disks that she took to engineering. She examined the disks carefully as she walked. They were all made from the same template with a finely etched radial grid pattern. Within each cell of the grid were four dots, also marked faintly, that formed a trapezoid that was wider toward the outside of the disk. Some combination of the four was punched out in each of the cells. She did some quick arithmetic in her head. Each cell could indicate one of sixteen possible combinations, assuming the location in the cell mattered. And she was pretty sure it did because she found all sixteen combinations on one of the disks. Perhaps the radial tracks conveyed one type of order and the sequence in the track indicated the specific order. Or maybe it was the other way around. She would have loved to spend the time to consider all the ways such a device could be used to encode information, but she had a more urgent and less elegant requirement at the moment.

She nearly ran into Yin as she entered engineering because she was holding the stack of disks up to the light and rotating them to determine if they were all the same or different. They were different.

“Dr. Young, we need to duplicate as many of these as possible, and quickly.”

Yin took one of the disks from her and examined the punched holes. “How do you know which holes to make?”

“Any holes will do, so long as they fit the pattern.” She pointed to the dots indicating where the holes should align.

“I understand.”

“I’m going back to the bridge. It may get a bit bumpy.”

“I understand.” As Sparky hustled back to the bridge, she thought about how lucky Dr. Pogue was to have such a brilliant and competent colleague. Two together were mightier than two alone.

“Captain Cox, I have another, safer plan.” The look on his face said, “Oh, I can hardly wait.” “Circle directly over the ring of mortars at an altitude of 1,000 feet. If my calculations and our recent experience are accurate, that will put us just out of range. I will draw their fire, but it’s critical that you hold Brittania on station…just out of range.” She probably didn’t need to remind Cox to stay out of range given that such an order was closely aligned with his natural proclivities. She just hoped the man had more nerve than he’d shown so far because, if he flinched, her plan would all be for not.

She left the bridge once again. This time she headed amidships to locate Gunner Hepburn’s station. As the flame cannon had been a recent retrofit, its controls had been squeezed into some repurposed space. Judging by the cabinets with their brackets and latches, it had been a china pantry. Probably just as well that the royal porcelain had been removed under the circumstances.

“Gunner Hepburn, I’m Dr. Sparky McTrowell, temporarily in command of this vessel.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How much fuel do you have for that weapon?”

“Ma’am?”

“How long can you fire that cannon?”

“Five minutes steady, ma’am, but it does tend to overheat, ma’am.”

She did more arithmetic in her head. “That should do it. When I give the order, I want you to fire bursts, thirty seconds on, thirty seconds off, until I tell you to stop.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She marched back to engineering. Yin had the entire engineering crew busy hammering scrap metal flat and cutting it into disks. She was meticulously punching the control holes herself. A couple dozen were complete. “Dr. McTrowell, wouldn’t it be better to punch no holes? The machines would stop moving.”

“If they are not moving, they can be repaired. Is crisis not danger plus opportunity?” Yin nodded in agreement and understanding. “Four more should be enough.” She took a fresh disk from a crewmember, picked up a yawl, and began punching holes. With some professional chagrin she noted that Yin’s punches were cleaner than hers. No matter. Duty called. They finished the last few.

Sparky led Yin to Private Jones’ station at the controls of the platform hoist. Sparky had to admit that she admired how thoroughly connected the communications on Brittania were. Everywhere there was a crew station, there was a voice pipe.

“Captain Cox, are we on station?”

“Aye aye.”

“Gunner Hepburn, are you ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Dr. Young, aim for the soldiers and the cutters.” Yin just nodded.

Sparky pulled out her pocket watch and waited for the second hand to come around to the top of the minute. “Now, Mr. Hepburn.” She kept an eye on the watch while listening carefully. After two bursts of the flame cannon, she heard the mortars start to fire again. She heard the shells whistle past the ship, or maybe she just imagined she could hear it from inside the gondola. She held her breath. If her calculations were wrong, it would all be over in less than three minutes, one way or another. She nodded to Yin to get on the platform. At the end of the third burst, she signaled Private Jones to lower the platform holding Yin. She ran to the edge of platform hole, poked her head out, and scanned the circle of mortars. She hopped back up and grabbed the voice pipe. “One more burst, Mr. Hepburn.” She sprinted back to the descending platform and jumped down next to Young who handed her a stack of the disks. With their backs to each other, they began hurling the disks down toward the battlefield, spinning as they went, aimed at the soldiers and cutters. Sparky had another of her inappropriate thoughts, thinking back to Drake’s story about the flying contraption and the baby coincident with the Annual Symposium of the Occidental Inventors’ Society.

Sparky shook herself out of her reminiscing to survey the effects of the ploy with the flame cannon. She felt herself rather clever at that moment. The bright bursts from the flame cannon had drawn the fire of the mortars. By circling just above their formation, HMA Brittania had tricked them into doing what no human would have done, firing on their own troops. The mortars were reduced to a smoldering ring of shrapnel. And there was still a minute and a half of firing time left in the flame cannon.

When she and Yin had dispensed the last of the disks, she signaled for Jones to hoist them back up. Although the platform gave her an excellent vantage point on the melee, it left them dangerously exposed. “Dr. Yin, please stay here and be prepared to help with the wounded.”

Sparky headed back to the bridge yet again. She couldn’t help thinking that she was sorely looking forward to a hot bath at the end of this expedition, assuming she survived it. She pulled out her spyglass and surveyed the state of the Dragon’s Teeth. The assemblers regrouped and began trolling the mechanical carnage. As she had hoped, they discovered the counterfeit disks on the field and began inserting them into the nearest operating automatons. At first nothing seemed to happen. And then the Dragon’s Teeth with new disks froze. Well, that was something of an improvement, but not quite the desired result.

And finally the malformed instructions took hold and sheer bedlam broke out. They ran into each other. A couple of the cutters began sawing up everything in reach including water bearers and soldiers. One of the assemblers began disassembling and reassembling itself with its parts in the wrong places. Some of the soldiers ripped off their own barrels. One of the water bearers dumped itself into the well, blocking that as a water supply. The lorries all drove in random directions, running over all their compatriots. Sparky allowed herself the luxury of a small smile.

“Captain Cox, I think it’s time to start cleaning up this mess.”

Previous Page Next Page