The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 2, Scene 1.
The carriage wheels hit the lip of the covered bridge with a bone-rattling jerk, rousing Ignatius from his meditative doze. Holding the top of his walking cane tightly in his fist, Ignatius glanced outside. They were crossing the covered bridge that ran from Front Street over to Forster Island. The steel-bound wheels cast a rumble through the structure as they turned over the wood. At the end of the bridge, the road deposited them at the Harbor Master’s building.
It was something akin to the depot at the Train station, a place where travelers could purchase tickets for passage on an airship, goods arrived and departed and messages were sent via wired or the newer wireless signal devices. At the north end of the island there stood two berths for commercial and military airships. In the middle of the island, the covered bridge crossed from the east shore to the west and on the south end; there were three berths for both commercial and private ships.
Today a pair of airships rode their tethers at the northern end. One of them was the Maudlin Rose, a light scout dirigible with a single fixed point Gatling gun. She occupied the west berth. To the east bobbed a slightly larger general service airship: The Mary Todd. Overhead the buzzing of two other airships reached those on the ground. Ignatius swung out of his carriage looked up to see another pair of general service scouts, whose names he could not make out. With the sound of a swarm of hummingbirds, cresting the hill on which Fort Couch sat, the Behemoth class dirigible made its slow, stately appearance.
Ignatius felt his mouth open in frank astonishment. The ship appeared to be as big as all of Forster Island. It was seal gray and similarly shaped. Even at such a distance, Ignatius could see that the airship was at least four decks high and armored. The Ulysses dropped some altitude and came to a hover facing upriver alongside Forster Island. The laborers, crew and every other person on the island stopped what they were doing and stared up at the gigantic ship.
A small vessel dropped out from under the Ulysses and maneuvered its way over to the airfield. With a minimum of fuss, the tiny launch wriggled its way between the Maudlin Rose and Mary Todd. It settled to the ground with a whoosh of escaping lift gasses. Ignatius turned his back on the craft and handed several coins to the driver,
“Take my bags over to the Maudlin Rose if you would, please.”
The cabbie nodded and threw on the brake before sliding down from his seat and walking to the rear of the cab. Ignatius made his way over to the Harbor Master’s office while glancing at his pocket watch. He still had time to find Wellsie before he needed to meet with Colonel Witmore and Commandant Lestrange. Ignatius walked into the office and found several men gathered at a table engrossed in their own conversation.
“….Can’t be arsed what the lil’ git wants. I’ve got a shipment of goods spoiling on the way over from Lancaster. If the bloody Army isn’t moved out in the next half hour, I’m gonna be sitting on a pile of shit, no one would eat.”
“Jersey, it’s OK. The flotilla will be leaving soon and a berth’ll be opened for you.”
“It better be, otherwise you can tell the damn Mayor why his eggs aren’t any good,” said the angry man. Several days’ worth of stubble clung to his jaw like lichen and a dirty handkerchief peeked out of his overalls back pocket.
“Just relax. Go signal your ‘ship to circle once or twice and by then you’ll be right as rain.”
The burly merchant pushed away from the table and brusquely rammed his way past Ignatius, sending the inventor stumbling. Ignatius took several steps to recover and flung a disgusted look at the man called ‘Jersey’.
“Sorry about him, Mr. St. Eligius. He’s out of sorts, we’ve had to hold his delivery indefinitely while the Army prepares their airships. It’s slowly spoiling in mid-air and that has made him testy. What may I help you with?”
“I am looking for Wellsie, has he turned up this morning?” asked Ignatius.
“Yes, he did, my apologies. I sent him over to berth S3 to tune the clamp, one of the captains complained about it leaving marks on his ship in the last few wind gusts. I expect him back momentarily, care for a cup of coffee?”
“Please, coffee would be most welcome.”
The Harbor Master shuttled over to the potbellied stove, took down the battered tin pot, and poured a measure of thick black liquid into a chipped mug. Ignatius was taking his third sip when Wellsie came into the office. He squeezed past the door frame and settled onto a bench along the front window.
“Yer clamp’s fixed, Tommy. Shouldn’t leave any marks on the ‘ships now. Mornin’ Ignatius, how’s tricks?”
Ignatius took a seat next to Wellsie. He noted the giant blacksmith smelled of hydraulics and river breezes. Wellsie rubbed his temple with a thick finger and grimaced.
“Ain’t as young as I used to be,” he said.
Ignatius nodded. He felt the approach of his age as well. The aching stabs of pain in his joints, which could have something to do with age or the damage sustained in his past.
“Did you find anything out, Wellsie?” Ignatius asked.
Wellsie pulled a sour face, “I did, but I don’t like what I found.” He fingered the frayed edge of his coveralls contemplating his next words. Unconsciously he dropped his voice down several notches causing Ignatius to lean in toward him to hear better.
“The train was carrying something unique and …alive…,” Wellsie said, emphasizing the last word. “A fellow from the depot where they loaded the train called it ‘other-worldly’. A few rumors hint that its violent to boot. A more reliable reference said that the train carried a compliment of doctors, scientists and animal specialists. Not to mention a cadre of soldiers, the hard, grizzled veteran types. Whatever it is, the government took as many precautions as they could.”
“Not one clue as to what it is?”
“Nope. The porter from the depot said he heard it’s cry, chilled his blood, according to him.”
“What we know then is this: The government transported something by rail, air pirates raided the train using a new weapon and in the course of their attack released some kind of wild beast into the countryside. Does that sound about right?” asked Ignatius.
Wellsie nodded his head in agreement.
“Heads up boys, here comes Colonel Witmore,” warned the Harbor Master.
“Shit,” muttered Ignatius glancing down at his pocket watch again. “We are supposed to be out there listening to some windbag go on about the mission.”
“You all right, Ignatius?” Wellsie asked. “You seem a bit more frantic than normal.”
“I have something fantastic to share with you. What you just described sounds familiar, but it will have to wait until later, like when we are airborne,” said Ignatius as the door opened admitting Colonel Witmore into the office.
The Colonel stopped in front of the bench and surveyed the two men slouched on its rough wooden seat. Sanderson Witmore was dressed and polished to glistening. His uniform looked freshly washed and all of the brass trim glowed in the early morning light.
“What are you doing in here, Ignatius?” he asked, his eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Nothing, Colonel. Just trying to stay out of the weather for a change,” said Ignatius blandly.
“What’s he doing then?” Colonel Witmore demanded indicating Wellsie.
“I told you that I intended to bring Wellsie with me. And so, here he is.”
Yes, well I forgot to tell Captain Howard that he will have to modify the ballast on the Maudlin Rose to accommodate the blacksmith. As if there wasn’t enough on my plate of tasks.”
“Don’t you worry, baby. I’ll go over and talk to Eugene. He ‘n me go back a ‘ways,” said Wellsie. His eyes had turned flinty and he stood up stiffly. “I’ll see you at the gangplank, Ignatius.”
The blacksmith sidestepped Colonel Witmore and exited the Harbor Master’s office.
“Was it necessary to insult him, Sanderson?” asked Ignatius.
“I didn’t mean to, I’m just tired and frustrated. Sleep is not in my current schedule. Not since Commandant Lestrange entered the picture.”
“Are you telling me that some airship commander is able to push you around, given your position?”
“Lestrange is bearing papers from up on high. They trump my current rank and position. He says ‘Jump’, I have to say ‘How high.'”
“Really?” said Ignatius, unable to keep surprise out of his voice.
Colonel Witmore’s reputation was not one of kowtowing to everyone, rather a much more standoffish attitude. What sort of influence Commandant Lestrange wielded piqued Ignatius’s interest. He took another swallow of the bitter overcooked sludge that the Harbor Master poured. Placing the cup on a nearby desk, Ignatius rose off the bench using his cane to assist him. Colonel Witmore opened the door for Ignatius.
“Thank you for the coffee, Tommy. It was something, different,” said Ignatius with a wave.
The Harbor Master bade Ignatius and Colonel Witmore goodbye as the door drew closed. Outside a bitter wind cut across Ignatius’s face, stealing his breath for a moment. Colonel Witmore led the way up the path to the northern airship berths. They reached the spot between the two ships where the path diverged. A cluster of mechanics, pilots and gunners loitered, waiting for their orders. Ignatius and the Colonel joined the waiting group.
Scanning the crowd, Ignatius spotted a few familiar faces. There was the first mate and gunner from the Maudlin Rose, Christian De La Croix and Hines ‘Smitty’ Smith respectively. Ignatius gave them a hesitant wave, recalling his most recent run-in with their engineer named Franco; a sinister man with a wicked boot. Taking a second look, Ignatius confirmed that Franco was not in the crowd. Christian and Hines made their way over to where Ignatius was standing.
“Mousier St. Eligius! It ees so good to see you again,” Christian greeted the inventor.
“Gentlemen, I trust the air currents are treating you well,” Ignatius said with a grin.
“We could complain, but ain’t nobody gonna care,” Hines said in his deep rumbling voice. A hangdog grin spread across Smitty’s face, revealing bright white teeth.
“I understand you will be sailing with us today, ce vrai?”
“It is true, my associate, the rather large gentleman talking with your captain over there,” Ignatius said, pointing out Wellsie, “and I will be joining you on this excursion.”
“Cap’n jus’ ditched the engineer that got assigned to us, said we needed the ballast room. Your friend, can he run a steam engine?” asked Hines.
“He should not have any trouble with it.”
“How’s about the lift mechanism?”
“Given a few moments, I am sure Wellsie can handle it.”
“There isn’t going to be much time. We sail as soon as the Commandant addresses us.”
Ignatius took note of the launch sitting between the Maudlin Rose and the Mary Todd. Four soldiers dressed in white and blue uniforms formed up ranks next to the hatch. A minute passed and then the Commandant climbed out of the tiny airship. He was limp looking as though he was a dishrag, wrung out and laid over the sink to dry. His hair fell in lank stands that showed little indication frequent washing. A decorative sword dangled from his waist and cream-colored gloves protected his hands from the elements. A visible line of dander marred his greatcoat’s shoulders, stark white against the midnight blue.
The sun weakly broke out from behind a cloud illuminating the water with sparkling drops of color. Wellsie lumbered through the crowd to arrive next to Ignatius. He folded his arms across his chest with a bored expression. Ignatius poked Wellsie in the ribs in order to attract his attention. Wellsie cocked an eyebrow at Ignatius.
“Do you know how to operate a lift gas system?” Ignatius asked in a whisper.
Wellsie snorted in disgust. “Of course I do. Hell man, I could even build one for you that would be an improvement over whatever’s in these flying bathtubs.”
“I will keep that at the forefront of my mind, should the need arise. It looks like the good Commandant is going to bless us with his words.”
It was true. The Commandant was standing on top of a crate, surveying his troops. His upper lip curled slightly when his gaze fell upon Ignatius and Wellsie. It lingered for a moment and then was gone. Before Ignatius could blink Lestrange puffed out his chest and launched into what might have been a rousing speech, if only the Commandant’s voice did not sound like a hen laying the egg of her life.