A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 1, Scene 2
The handsome cab rolled over the covered bridge toward Forster Island. The steel wrapped wheels rattled against the rough wood timbers that made up the bridge’s roadway. The sound echoed throughout the structure. Along the river, white mist blanketed the outlying islands in pale white cloaks. The cab reached the end of the bridge coming within hearing of the first sounds of the airfield.
There was the shout of men working to unload a dirigible at the southern berths, the clang of tools against metal closer by and the low thrum of an idling engine punctuated by wet pops of steam escaping a valve. The cab rolled to a stop near the low wood building that served as the hub for everything associated with the island. The freight master shared space with the labor organizer, a booker of passages, the telegraph operator and the perhaps misnamed harbormaster. Ignatius strode inside the plank structure and went to the passenger ticket desk.
“I believe you are holding a ticket for me,” he said.
“Yes sir, the charter came down from Fort Couch last week. You have a seat on the USDF Maudlin Rose. She’s in berth N2. That’s on the north end, west side.”
“Of course, my thanks.”
Ignatius took his ticket from the elderly man and tucked it away into his coat pocket. The door banged open and heavy footsteps preceded the arrival of an enormous man. He wore black overalls and a once cream-colored long johns shirt. Standing at nearly 6′ 5” the newcomer had to stoop slightly just to fit into the building without smashing his head.
“Yer gol darned hydraulics is busted. How in the three coldest hells did that happen?” he bawled at the Harbor Master.
Ignatius smiled. he knew that string of profanity anywhere.
“Wellsie! Good to see you again,” Ignatius said to the giant.
The man turned on Ignatius, immediately a huge smile replaced the scowl. The grin split open a thicket of beard and showing off brilliant white teeth.
“Ignatius St. Eligius aren’t you a sight. I heard tell that you were in prison.”
“I am free at the present moment, as you can see.”
Wellsie hailed from Mechanicsburg, a bustling town just west of Fort Couch. Aptly named, the town played host to a very large number of mechanics. They were rough folks who tended to operate a forge, pound glowing metal into useful shapes, drink and brawl excessively. Mechanicsburg is where they gathered to trade ideas and further the notion of progress in their own ways.
Wellsie and Ignatius worked together on the occasions when Ignatius was not sure how to proceed with fabricating something or when he simply needed an extra pair of skilled hands. He trusted Wellsie’s scarred knuckles more than most. Wellsie worked with him when he built his ill-fated battlewagon. They had also constructed a system of hydraulic lifts for the northern berths in order to facilitate the loading and unloading of cargo.
“What are you doing here?” Wellsie asked, peering down at Ignatius with coal black eyes.
“I am taking a short trip out west to Pittsburgh. Official business.”
“Ah, back in the game are you? You look kinda puny… Weren’t they feedin’ you in the nuthouse?”
Ignatius grimaced, “I would rather not dwell on my incarceration. Thank you for asking though.”
“No problem. Hey, you got a minute? Mebbe you can suggest somethin to fix this damn machine.”
Ignatius checked his pocket watch. “I have half an hour before my flight leaves. Should that suffice?”
“Yeah, I’d appreciate it. A valve froze shut or somesuch. Can’t tell on account of all the shit these people have done to our work.”
The door opened and closed again. Ignatius glanced out of the corner of his eye at the newcomer and froze. A Chinese man glided across the office to the freight master on slipper-clad feet. His face was narrow and cruel, like a hawk diving in for the kill. On his right cheek, a jagged scar gleamed in the lamp light. As most men in his culture did, he wore a long ponytail or Manchu Queue down his back.
Ignatius tensed. The man was Lao, a reptilian tempered employee of Bey-Feng a notorious Opium dealer and at one time, supplier to Ignatius. Prior to his arrest Ignatius experimented with a variety of narcotics and natural compounds in order to alleviate the pain of his injuries. He in fact created something both magnificent and destructive, a chemical solution that unlocked the potential and ability of his mind, but made him lose control of his senses and inhibitions.
The results were a grand failure. On the one hand, it led him to his greatest creation to date, the battlewagon. On the other, that path took him to jail and separated him from his love, Angela.
Lao leaned into the freight master, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. Lao’s jaw clenched while he spoke in a low voice that Ignatius could not hear. The freight master, though not as tall or burly as Wellsie, was a powerfully built man used to handling heavy freight day in and day out. Yet he sat motionless, nodding slightly as Lao whispered. Ignatius felt his throat close up and his knuckles whitened around the top of his cane.
Looking up from the Freight Master, Lao turned as though he sensed Ignatius’s glare and smiled with thin lips and dangerous glint in his eyes. Ignatius blinked. The left eye appeared to be rounder and much whiter than the other was. Peering closer small brass cogs turned on a plate fastened to the outside of the eye socket.
“Greetings Mr. St. Eligius. We’d wondered where you may have gotten yourself to,” said Lao.
His voice still barely more than a whisper, carried a touch of poison in its pleasantries.
“Lao, still doing Bey-Feng’s bidding I see,” said Ignatius.
“There are many rewards for those who serve. Especially for those with great loyalty.”
“I have no interest in Bey-Feng and his product.”
“Truly heart-rending that news is. I will of course be sure to let Bey-Feng know that you are no longer interested.” Lao licked his lips and gave Ignatius a more appraising look.
“Perhaps just a little taste? Maybe take the edge off your re-integration into society?”
The sentence rolled out teasing Ignatius. However, he could not deny a small stirring inside. That desperate part of him still desired the velvet numbness of his elixir and the great and terrible things he could do. A heavy hand dropped onto his shoulder and squeezed gently.
“Pay him no stinkin’ attention,” Wellsie said. “’Way I heard it, one of Bey-Feng’s own whores took Lao’s eye with a finger-needle for being too insistent with her sister’s virtue.”
Lao sneered at Wellsie before turning back to the freight master. He took a thick wad of paper currency and slipped it into the freight master’s vest pocket along with a small white square of paper. Lao brushed down the front of his silk shirt and then tucked his hands into the opposite sleeves. He gave Ignatius and Wellsie a brief glance. Chuckling over nothing, he left the building without a backward glance.
“Frank, what was that all about?” asked the harbormaster.
He lifted his stout frame out of his rickety chair and hobbled over to Frank. The Freight Master’s complexion had gone sallow. Beads of sweat stood out against his forehead.
“Don’t you pay it no mind,” Frank insisted.
He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow with it.
“Things have a way of gettin’ around, you know how it is,” said Frank.
The Harbor Master grunted, waving a thick finger under Frank’s nose, “You’d best not be causing any troubles for my port.”
Frank shook his head. Then he turned away from the others and made a big show of poring over the freight manifests from the previous week. Ignatius tipped his hat to everyone and marched outside. Wellsie followed Ignatius. In a minute, Ignatius caught up to Lao.
“Lao, what game are you playing at?”
The Chinaman turned to face Ignatius. “I play no game. Bey-Feng has items that he wishes to reach him. I am merely executing my master’s wish.”
The false eye whirred and clicked, it seemed to focus first on Ignatius and then Wellsie. The iris narrowed and expanded before becoming still again.
“I must be on my way. Bey-Feng will want to know that this issue is resolved.”
Without appearing to move, Lao flicked a packet at Ignatius. The investigator reacted instinctively catching the triangle of paper.
“We shall meet again, you and me. Have no doubts. Do not think to follow me again. Your position with the government is nothing to us. Should you be an obstacle we will remove you with as much feeling as we remove an ant from the table.”
Lao walked north toward berth N1. Through the mist, Ignatius could see the prow of Bey-Feng’s airship. The gondola was a Chinese Junk, complete with several cannons and square red sails. The half-sized sails flared out to the sides. They actually assisted in steering the ship. Lao nimbly scampered up the gangplank, disappearing into the bowels of the ship. Ignatius turned to Wellsie, shrugging. “Come on. Show me to the broken hydraulics.”
“Right you are,” said Wellsie.
The large man led the way over to the western side of the island. They travelled along a simple footpath because it was more direct than the rough dirt road used by wagoneers. The path brought them out next to the steel superstructure that rose up around the USDF Maudlin Rose. She bobbed in the breeze some ten feet above the ground.
By most standards, the United States Dirigible Force Maudlin Rose was a small craft. The main lift bladder stretched 60 feet in an oblong tube. She was not a rigid airship. Those were almost exclusively the largest cargo carriers or war machines. They needed the extra support to carry the weight of goods, troops or armor. Still the Maudlin Rose looked quite capable.
The nose of the lift bladder attached to a chain, which ran down to a winch. The hydraulic equipment could retract the chain and bring the airship lower in the dock. This allowed passengers to board with minimal climbing ability.
However, if the hydraulics were not working correctly, the ship would not come down. Wellsie took up a large wrench then fixed it onto a matching bolt and heaved. Muscles swelled in his arms and shoulders. Groaning from the strain Wellsie pushed on the wrench.
“There’s no flow of fluid from the manifold into the winching mechanism,” said Wellsie. “This bolt, if you remember controls the restrictor valve. I can’t budge the blasted thing.”
Ignatius examined the bolt, then the surrounding assembly of parts.
“Bypass the valve. You ought to be able to run a length of hose from this side of the valve to the other. Of course you will not have any means of controlling the speed, but I think that should not be a problem.”
“By Jove, that should do the trick! Bless my soul, why didn’t I see that before?”
“I’ll leave you to it. I have to locate the captain and review the flight plan.”
“Rigth then, have a safe flight. Be sure to look me up when you get back,” said Wellsie.
“I will. I think I will have a project for you before too long.”
Ignatius shook hands with the giant and wandered off looking for the airhsip’s captain. While he searched, Ignatius pondered the appearance of Lao and the presence of Bey-Feng’s airship. It would indicate a trip about to take place, but to what purpose. What would it mean for him?