City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey
 

Chapter 3
THE AIRSHIP ZAMBESI

 
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Prologue
Chapter 1 - A Night in Hong Kong
Chapter 2 - A Secret Mission
Chapter 3 - The Airship Zambesi
Chapter 4 - Attacked by Sky Pirates
Chapter 5 - Singapore
Chapter 6 - A Voyage by Aethership
Chapter 7 - Return to Mars
Chapter 8 - Secret Mission Revealed
 

Brightly colored hulls bearing the emblems of Britain, France, and the other European powers floated alongside vessels from Japan, Russia, and the empires of Mexico and Brazil, interspersed with sleeker shapes painted in the blue, grey, or black of the Royal Air Corps. Our destination was the dark yellow AS Zambesi, the Peninsular and Oriental Company’s premier airship in the East. Over eight hundred feet long, she can carry one hundred fifty passengers and her highly efficient Tesla steam turbines are capable of driving her along at ninety miles per hour for thousands of miles. It is sixteen hundred miles from Hong Kong to Singapore, where the East India Company’s aetherships set out across the vast gulfs between the planets. Zambesi could make the trip in less than twenty hours, days faster than the fastest steamship. Everyone who is anyone—heads of state, captains of industry, merchant princes—travels aboard her when they are in the Orient. The half dozen soldiers of the Hong Kong Regiment escorting me to where she lay moored made me doubt that I would have the opportunity to rub elbows with any of those august personages, though.

My guards pushed their way through the swarm of coolies ferrying supplies up the gangplanks and we climbed up two flights of stairs to the top deck, where a grey whiskered colour sergeant stood waiting for us. The men saluted him crisply. He returned it and looked me up and down, eyes narrowed. After a moment, he nodded to himself and gestured down the passageway.

“Captain Branham, welcome aboard Zambesi. I am Colour Sergeant Sykes, your escort to Singapore,” he drawled. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll show you to your stateroom.” He turned back to my guards. “Corporal Singh, station two of the men at the cargo and passenger gangplanks. Then find the chief steward and make sure that the captain’s belongings have been brought on board.”

“Yes, Colour Sergeant!”

My cabin was about what I expected, seven feet by six feet of light blue enamel, with an upper bunk that folded up against the wall and a lower bunk that could be made into a couch during the day. A narrow window looked down onto the landing field thirty feet below. I was freshening up and removing Quincey’s blood from my hand in the room’s tiny sink when Sykes let himself in.

“Excuse me, Captain. The men are coming up with your things so you can settle in. They’ll have the cabins to either side, and I’ll be in here with you, sir. Orders from Director Clement. I do hope you don’t mind a bit of snoring, sir,” he added sheepishly.

I found myself grinning despite everything. “Quite all right, Colour Sergeant. I’ve spent far too much time in barracks for a little snoring to disturb me.” I paused a moment, considering him. “Colour Sergeant, I don’t suppose it would be possible for me to send a message before we leave?”

Sykes frowned, making his long whiskers droop mournfully. “Captain, I have been expressly forbidden to allow you to send any messages. On my own, sir, I should be happy to oblige you, but I cannot violate orders in writing from a director.”

His sincerity was plain in the honest set of his eyes. I nodded. “Quite all right, Colour Sergeant. I understand.”

It did not take long to stow our things under the lower bunk and settle in. After that there was nothing to do but wait until our scheduled departure at eight that morning. I was still too worked up to sleep, so I chatted a bit with Sykes, but mainly I just sat and tried to soak in the fact that after years of exile, I was really going home.

A little after seven o’clock, Sykes got up to answer a knock at the door. He poked his head out, looked back at me, and vanished into the passageway. A moment later Captain Sutherland walked in and sat beside me on the lower bunk.

“Eric! What are you doing here?”

He gripped my hand firmly. “Sykes sent word to me when he got his orders. When I found out where they had taken you, I figured I’d better see if they were planning to drop you overboard as soon as they got out of sight of land.” He looked meaningfully at the door that stood between us and my escort. “Jack, in thirty minutes I can have my company here and get you out. Whatever they’re willing to do to get rid of you, I doubt it extends to killing half the regiment and trying the other half for mutiny.”

“Believe it or not, Eric, they’re sending me home. Back to Mars.”

He stared at me in disbelief. “But they’ve done everything imaginable to stop you from going back for the last three years. Why ship you back there now?”

“I don’t know. It’s some kind of job for the Colonial Office, I think, but I don’t know what. They won’t tell me until I get there.”

He shook his head, still doubting. “Are you sure you don’t want me to get you out of here, Jack? It sounds awfully shady to me.”

“No. But I need a favor. A big one, Eric. I wouldn’t ask if I had any choice.”

“Anything you need, Jack.”

“Take care of Min. They won’t let her go with me; she’s a guarantee of my cooperation. I’ll send for her once I’ve gotten myself established, but until then she needs protection. They threatened to deport her to Canton. You know what that means.”

Eric gave me a sharp nod. “It’s no trouble at all, Jack. Consider it done.”

“I’m terribly sorry to stick you with this, Eric.”

“She’s a fine girl, Jack, and I quite like her. I don’t mind in the least.”

“Thanks, Eric. Make sure she knows that I would have taken her with me if I could. And keep an eye out for Inspector Quincey.”

Eric laughed softly. “Jack, I think half the boys in my company are in love with her. And the other half has a serious case of hero worship for you. Quincey had better not come anywhere near her if he values his life. They’re liable to find him floating in the harbor.”

Colour Sergeant Sykes knocked and poked his head into the room. “You’d better get along, Captain Sutherland; they’re about to raise the gangplanks.”

“Be careful, Jack,” Eric said, and we shook hands one last time.

I waited a few minutes for some sign that we were ready to depart, eager to start my long journey back to Mars. My impatience finally got the best of me, and I moved to look out the windows to see if there was any indication when we might get underway. To my surprise, we were already moving, the ground sliding by as I watched. I had felt no shock or vibration or the slightest hint of movement, and I could not hear so much as a murmur coming from Zambesi’s mighty engines. Once we reached our cruising altitude at six hundred feet, Colour Sergeant Sykes relented and allowed me to leave our cabin. We secured a table in the passenger lounge with a view through the promenade windows, and watched the morning sun sparkling on the glassy China Sea. We passed above countless fishing boats and steamships, their occupants often pausing from their tasks to wave enthusiastically to us as we floated by.

Sykes tried to take it in stride, but his eyes were agog as the world slid past. I think he was trying not to blink, afraid he might miss something. After a while he realized what he was doing and grinned sheepishly.

“Never had a chance to ride on an airship before, sir,” he admitted, “and I never would have dreamed my first time would be on one like Zambesi.”

I grinned back at him. “Just enjoy the ride, Colour Sergeant. I won’t be going anywhere.”

I watched with him for a while, until the glare on the sea grew painful and I accepted the day’s issue of the Hong Kong Telegraph from a steward. There was no good news. The French had annexed another bit of Siam, and dispatched warships to the Siamese coast to pressure their king into paying them more indemnities. For good measure they had seized the son of the King of Cambodia and exiled him to Algeria. Anarchists were running amok in Italy, fomenting riots in several of the major cities while their compatriots set off bombs in Vienna and Paris. Personally I thought Alexander III had the right idea, publicly executing every one of them he could catch in the same spot where anarchists had assassinated his father. More riots had broken out in New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts over the policies of the new Governor General, and the Colonial Office was recommending transport of several more regiments to the American colonies to quell dissent. The Dutch South Africa Company had invaded the Matebele Kingdom again. I folded the paper and sat it on down the table with a sigh. It was just one more reason to be glad I was on my way back to Mars.

That afternoon, about halfway through our voyage, I spotted a smudge on the horizon to the southwest.

“Is that a storm?” I asked a passing steward.

“No, sir. That’s the north coast of Annam, part of French Indochina.”

A voice a couple of tables down rose in amazement. “Look at those huge birds, my dear. Are they some kind of condor, or perhaps albatross, do you think?”

We strained our eyes at the black specks swooping towards us from the jungles to the south. They approached with a disturbing rapidity and grew from mere specks to easily discernable hawk-like shapes stooping upon us. I recognized them, although they were hardly a common sight in the Empire outside of a few circuses. Who wanted to risk life and limb in a fragile little kite of wood and cloth when you could fly in a mighty aluminium giant like Zambesi?

“Those aren’t birds,” I corrected.

“Of course they are,” the man sputtered indignantly. “What else could they be?”

“Those are aeroplanes.”