The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 3, Scene 1.
The little airship was sleek, fish like in its shape and an able sprinter. Three spinning blades on the back pushed it along through the air.
“Stoke the fire if you please, Mr. Wellsie,” hollered Captain Eugene, “and open all the valves for thrust. We’ve got a chase on our hands.”
Wellsie turned the knobs to send more steam-built pressure into the shaft that turned the propeller before opening the firebox and hurtling scoop after scoop of coal into it. The pistons chuffed faster in response, sending the Maudlin Rose on her way. Ignatius focused his binoculars on the gondola of the pirate ship. The dirigible was a mismatched collection of parts from other airships, half-completed modifications and simple design. The gondola was open air and arranged like a traditional water vessel.
The ship’s wheel was at the aft end and the boiler and engine sat amidships. A stout figure gesticulated wildly at the wheel, directing the other three crewmembers. Ignatius recognized the shape of Mousier Broussard, even before he saw the man’s face as he glanced backwards to check on the pursuit.
“More steam, Mr. Wellsie. We need to draw alongside them in order to bring them down,” Captain Howard said.
“Captain, do we have to bring them down? Can we at least attempt to parley with them?” asked Ignatius.
“I have orders Mr. St. Eligius. The pirates are to be shot down with prejudice.”
“Surely that order is meant for the responsible party, which I do not believe this group is.”
“What’s your explanation for that?” Captain Howard asked, even as he adjusted the lift bag’s trim from his own controls at the helm.
“That ship is too light to lift anything significant; it has no mounts for weapons of any kind new or more traditional. I know the pilot, he is unbalanced to be sure, however I cannot think he would engage in the sort of attack that we are investigating. Let me speak with him, perhaps we can turn up some actual information on the perpetrators.”
“You make a good argument, Mr. St. Eligius,” said Captain Howard. He debated internally for exactly five seconds. “All right, we’ll do it your way. Mr. De La Croix, bring us alongside that ship. Smitty, you will hold fire until otherwise directed, if that ship points anything threatening in our direction remove it from the sky. There is a megaphone in that cabinet you can use to hail the pirate ship, Mr. St. Eligius,” said the Captain.
The Maudlin Rose started to overtake the smaller airship as they both raced over frosted fields of the local farms. Ignatius noted that the pirate craft used fixed metal frames to hold its lift bag in place instead of the more traditional netting. The rigid frame meant that the balloon would create less drag as it would not shift in the air. He felt confident that it was a hit and run vessel, making quick raids on wagons and small trains. The compliment of crew did not pose a real threat to a heavily armed transport such as Train #12.
Mousier Broussard was insane to be sure, but had proven helpful last month giving Ignatius the location of a Vodou woman on Allison Hill. Ignatius opened the cabinet door and took out a brass megaphone. The Maudlin Rose was closing in on the stern of Mousier Broussard’s dirigible. Ignatius opened a window and put his hat on a bench. He leaned out and put the megaphone to his mouth, “Jean Jaques, it is Ignatius St. Eligius. Please heave to, we wish to parley with you. We do not want to engage you in a fight.”
As close as they were, Ignatius could see the Frenchman flinch at the sound of his own name spoken.
“Cap’n I still don’ have a clear shot. The gun isn’t rotating far enough forward,” Smitty reported.
“Heave to,” Ignatius repeated through the megaphone.
Again, Jean Jaques looked back over his shoulder contemplating the distance between ships. Then he removed his large, bejeweled Napoleon hat and bowed in Ignatius’s direction. Mousier Broussard called and waved at the man operating the steam engine making cutting motions across his throat.
“That’s done it,” said Captain Howard. “Excellent. We’ll touch down in that field over there, prepare landing grapples, Smitty.”
Both airships expelled lift gas allowing them to sink towards the ground. Wellsie eased back on the throttle while Christian steered a course for the middle of a large cornfield.
“Listen Mr. St. Eligius, I know you have a relationship with that man but I have a duty to this crew and ship. Hines will man his gun at all times. If there is even a hint of trouble, he will open fire. Do not let your guard down; there is no telling how this is going to play out.”
“I will take everything under advisement Captain. Rest assured I will do my utmost to maintain control of the situation.”
The Captain gave Ignatius a quick nod and then called Wellsie forward. “I will assume the controls while you deploy the landing grapples. On either side of the gondola at the midpoint there are tubes pointing down. Inside is the rope and grapple. Fire each one to anchor us in place and activate the winch to draw us down. Can you do that, Mr. Wellsie?”
“No problem, Captain Howard,” replied the blacksmith.
“Right, all hands, prepare for landing,” called the Captain. “On my mark fire the grapples. 3..2..1, Fire!”
Wellsie squeezed the portside grapple trigger. The concussion jostled the gondola and the report echoed out over the fields. Within a few seconds, Wellsie repeated the process on the starboard side. The mechanical winch whirred as it drew the airship down to the ground. The moment the second grapple discharged, Captain Howard released a fair amount of lift, allowing the airship to settle to the ground.
Christian moved to the hatch and opened the door for Ignatius. The lip of the entrance hovered some three feet from the frost-hardened dirt of the field. Ignatius lowered himself to the floor of the airship and gingerly eased his legs out and continued until they touched the ground. The first mate handed Ignatius his cane and then followed the inventor out of the ship. Christian moved to the grapple sites and examined the hold each had.
Satisfied he touched Ignatius on the arm and said, “When you speak with the other captain, try not to block him from our view. We’ll keep you covered from here.”
“Right. Well, I am off to see Mousier Broussard and try to learn what he knows about this situation. Adieu.”
Ignatius tapped his hat into place and hobbled across the uneven field. The ground was firm enough to prevent him sinking, alleviating him of that small concern. Mousier Broussard settled his ship down with skillful ease. He opened the small gate that served as the only barrier between inside the dirigible’s gondola and outside of it. Mousier Jean Jaques Broussard dressed the part of a mad air pirate.
High black leather boots rose beyond his knees and shone with a deep luster. His mustache was waxed to within an inch of its life and he doffed his leather-flying cap and goggles. These were tossed casually aside so that he could remove the soft tan leather gloves. Mousier Broussard minced over the ground to meet Ignatius about half way between the two ships.
“Mousier St. Eligius, so vary nice to see vous again,” said Jean Jaques, beaming from ear to ear. As quickly as it came, the smile went. “I theenk you are pursuing me, non?”
“Jean Jaques, please do not be alarmed. Things are not as bad as they may seem. We are looking for the people responsible for the attack on the train, was it you?” said Ignatius without bothering to draw the issue out.
“Non, Mousier! My word of honor it was not we.”
“Can you tell me anything about who did it then?”
“Ah, that is a tricky tale Mousier. I am not sure you are ready for it,” the Frenchman said with fear touching his voice.
“I have a flotilla of airships at my beck and call,” Ignatius said, fibbing a little. “I do not think there is anything nearby that could give me any trouble.”
A cold wind blasted across the field, tugging at the hem of Ignatius’s coat. He envied Jean Jaques’s lamb’s wool lined jacket for a moment. Mousier Broussard hemmed and hawed for a minute before finally opening his mouth to speak.
“There is a band of pirates in this area, a true band of murderous villains,” Jean Jaques said. We are not sure where they came from or when exactly they arrived. Zeir airsheep is larger than yours is and more armored. Zey fly zee tri-colors upside down as both a misdirection and an insult.”
“Tell me about the weapon, Jean Jaque,” Ignatius quietly asked. He could sense that the Frenchman had seen it in operation. Normally, Jean Jaques was too brash or mad or both to be scared of something. Whatever it was, it made an impression on him and Ignatius wanted to know about it.
“It is mounted on zee side of zee ship. Only, it does not feet very well. They made a ragged cut in zee side.”
“Have you witnessed it being used?”
“Oui, when zey attacked zee train. It was lightning released from a bottle. It entered zee boiler and exploded out zee other side. Zee noise, ugh tres terrible!”
“What happened next?”
“Zee train, she crashed throwing the cars around. A few people managed to get clear of zee wreckage. Zere was something else,” Jean Jaques said, pausing. “Something large crawled out of zee one boxcar. I could not see it clearly. Too much smoke in the ways.”
“Did you see the shape of it?”
“Non, not well. It could have been a man but it was larger than even your blacksmith friend was. It might have been an Automata. Yet it moved with fluid motions, not all herky-jerky as the metal men do.”
“The government is excited to get it back. Did you have a run in with the other pirates?”
“Non. Zeir weapon has a small range and zee ship es slow. I will say zee crew gave me chills. I have never seen harder looking men. At least not in zis sense, because I have seen plenty of zee hard mens,” Jean Jaques said chuckling.
“Were these men foreigners?”
“I think not. Zey were all noir.”
“Noir? That is black in French, correct?”
“Oui. Now that I theenk a bit, they moved stiffly, like zee Automatons.”
Ignatius gripped Jean Jaques’s arm in an iron grip, “Are you certain,” he hissed through clenched teeth, “Absolutely certain that they moved like machines?”
“Oui, I thought it strange but I didn’t theenk on it too much. We were making the eescape.”
“That was a good idea.”
“What ees wrong?”
“I have to go back to the Maudlin Rose. Listen, Jean Jaques. You need to stay with us. Your crew too, for safety. I am going to talk to Captain Howard about clemency and conscription.”
Ignatius spun on his heel and hurried back to the Maudlin Rose, leaving Mousier Broussard sputtering in the field. Christian assisted Ignatius climbing back into the ship.
The inventor, wide-eyed said to the Captain, “I need to send a wireless message back to Fort Couch and Colonel Witmore, it is urgent.”
“That isn’t possible. The fort is out of our wireless range. About the best I can suggest is contacting the Ulysses and see if they have the power and range to relay your message.”
Ignatius sighed inwardly, “Raise the Ulysses then. Perhaps they can help us.”
The Captain shrugged and bade the first mate to make the call to the other airship. The wireless operator who answered flatly refused to reroute the call, his orders were to maintain radio silence except for communications between ships in the flotilla. Ignatius fumed and ranted at the man, accusing the operator of any number of ugly habits. After thirty seconds, the unfortunate high-pitched voice of Commandant Lestrange cut in over the callbox.
“Who is tying up this channel,” he demanded.
“It is Ignatius St. Eliguis, Commandant. I need to relay a message to…”
Commandant Lestrange cut Ignatius off, “You need to get off this wireless transmission and get back to what you are supposed to be doing! The wireless network is not here for your amusement. We cannot risk having your trivial broadcast giving away our position. Sign off, and get back on station or I will have you court-martialed back into the shock therapy rooms at the Harrisburg Hospital for the Insane!”
The wireless callbox fell silent except for the normal hum of static.
Ignatius turned to Captain Howard, “Captain, I need you to conscript Mousier Broussard and his crew. It is for their safety as well as ours. They are not responsible for the attack. Jean Jaques described the perpetrators, trust me; we need all of the people we can lay our hands on. Take us back to the train wreck,” Ignatius said morosely. He walked halfway back through the gondola when he spotted his carpetbag lying on the floor under a bench. Wellsie met him amidships and after reading the expression on Ignatius’s face asked, “What’s wrong, Ignatius?”
“Something from my past just arrived and it is a horror beyond imaging. I thought sure that I had ended,” he said, reaching into his bag and extracting a Beaumont-Adams revolver.
The weight of the pistol gave a little reassurance to Ignatius. Colonel Witmore had given it to him several months before around the same time that Mary Kendall went missing. It was his chosen sidearm for field duty during the Civil War when he was a spy, scouting through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. It was the same gun he cast into a creek, swearing that he would never take up firearms again.
He had broken that oath once before, when he committed the crime that landed him in the insane asylum of Harrisburg. If Jean Jaques was right, then the terrible experiments on men had resumed, creating a collection of damned souls, part man and part machine. Ignatius broke the cylinder open and gave it a spin. It whirred and spun freely. Colonel Witmore restored the gun well.
Ignatius reached into his bag again, took out a box of bullets, and began loading them into the chambers. He did not notice the bumps as the Maudlin Rose took to the skies again, he did not notice the concerned look from Wellsie. He weighed the gun in his shaking hands as though he weighed his own soul. Perhaps, he thought to himself, I am.