City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey

Chapter 4

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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

I WAS SOON PROVEN RIGHT; the aeroplanes rapidly intercepted us and swarmed around Zambesi like gigantic, silent mosquitoes. They were dark green biplanes, with tricolor emblems painted on the upper wing and fuselage.

“They’re British!” someone exclaimed, just about the time the unmistakable rattle of Maxim guns drowned out our voices.

“That’s not Royal Air Corps,” muttered Sykes. “Their tricolor is blue, white, and red. These fellows are red, white, and blue.”

“Who uses a red, white, and blue tricolor?”

He shook his head as another burst from the machine guns set the room to screaming. One of the planes took up station about ten yards to the right of Zambesi’s gondola. The other planes pulled up and disappeared above us. We heard muffled voices coming from outside, and a steward ran up and cranked open one of the promenade windows. We could hear someone in the plane shouting through a megaphone, but we could not make out what he was saying. We had no problem making out the shriek of the man who fell past the promenade windows, though. He slid over the curve of the hull, a tangled sheet of white silk flapping wildly behind him, and dropped like a stone towards the ocean below. Sykes and I looked at each other.

“They’re trying to board us,” I said.

“But how, sir? Even if they cut their way in, they would suffocate in a hurry if they tried to go through the gas cells.”

The steward who had opened the window overheard us. “There’s an observation hatch in the top of the hull. The navigation crew uses it now and then if they need to take sightings.”

“Go warn the captain that they’re trying to get in,” I told him. “We’re going to try to stop them.”

Colour Sergeant Sykes favored me with a hard look as the steward dashed away. “We’re going to stop them?”

“They have no reason to suspect that there are armed soldiers on board. That gives us the advantage of surprise.”

We hurriedly roused the four soldiers who were not on duty guarding me. Sykes explained the situation while I worried over the best way to deal with our attackers.

“They’ll have to come up here,” I said. “They have to keep the passengers under control, and they’ll want to ransack the staterooms. I think our best course is to ambush them as they come up the stairs, while they’re not expecting resistance. What do you think, Colour Sergeant?”

“An excellent idea, sir. You take half of the men and cover the stairs in the passenger lounge. The rest of us will prepare a hot reception for them on the stairs in the dining room.” He nodded at Corporal Singh, who reluctantly handed me his Webley service revolver.

We quickly herded the passengers in the lounge back to their staterooms with orders to lie on the floor. A few of the more panicked ones were balky at first, but Corporal Singh’s stony-faced Sikhs proved to be quite persuasive. Once the passengers were taken care of, I situated the men so they could fire into the lounge stairwell without being easily observed by someone coming up, and crouched behind a wooden divider myself. We did not have to wait long. Loud voices speaking oddly cadenced French announced their coming. I held up one hand in a signal for the men to hold their fire; I wanted to wait until the whole group was visible before we began shooting.

Five men clambered up the stairs: four Asians, one European. All wore fleece-lined leather jackets and canvas knapsacks, close-fitting leather flying caps with green tinted goggles, and they were armed with a mismatched assortment of carbines and pistols. I dropped my hand and four shots echoed through the room. Three of the men fell, and the other two spun around looking for their attackers and trying to bring their guns to bear. I sighted along the barrel of the Webley and dropped another man with a bullet in his brain. Corporal Singh and one of the privates fired at the same time and sent the last man tumbling back down the stairs.

We heard scattered shots coming from the other side of the ship; it sounded as though Sykes’s men were having a bit more difficulty with their quarry. I nodded at Corporal Singh and slipped silently around the stairwell and past the hallway to the passenger staterooms. From there we could look down into the other stairwell. Two men were huddled inside, popping out one at a time to fire at Sykes’s men. We could hear another man out of sight further down the stairs shouting imprecations in French. Before the pirates could see us, I ordered my men to fire. Five shots smashed into the stairwell and both men fell. The unseen man gave a cry and clattered back down the stairs to the lower ‘B’ deck.

“Everyone all right?” I called.

“We’ve got one dead and one flesh wound, sir,” Sykes reported.

“The rest of them probably went for the control room. Do you know where that is?”

Sykes shook his head. “Corporal Singh, go find one of the stewards.”

He wandered over to the promenade windows. “The aeroplanes are gone. And our engines are stopped.”

I walked over and looked out. “They must have run low on fuel and gone back to their base.”

“Then how were these men planning to escape?”

“Look.” I pointed to the west where a steamship was plowing through the waves towards us. “They’ll vent our helium until we’re close to the water, then transfer their loot to that ship. Once they’ve taken everything they want, they’ll vanish into the mangrove swamps around the coast before we can alert anyone.”

The corporal quickly returned with an assistant cook, whose eyes went wide as he took in the destruction and bodies around us.

“How do you get to the control room from here?” I demanded.

“Go downstairs to ‘B’ deck,” he stammered. “Take the main passageway all the way forward, past the crew’s mess and kitchen. There’s a door at the end of the hall that opens onto the corridor that runs the length of the keel. About forty feet up the corridor is a side door to the post office. The ladder inside there goes down to the gondola.”

Sykes and I split up the men and charged down the staircases, halfway expecting our assailants to try the same ambush we had used on their friends. We emerged on ‘B’ deck unopposed, however, and carefully made our way up the main passage with Corporal Singh in the lead. We saw one white-uniformed crewman sprawled facedown in the crew’s mess, but other than that the deck seemed to be deserted. When we reached the door to the keel corridor we flattened ourselves against the walls while Corporal Singh gingerly turned the handle and pushed the door open.

He had taken only a couple of steps forward when bright flashes lit up the dark corridor, the sounds of the shots echoing past us. Singh fell backwards, blocking the door open. Two of our men dropped to the floor and fired up the hallway into the shadows.

“Rush them!” I yelled, and dashed forwards. I fired two shots of my own, hoping to force the pirates to keep their heads down. I could hear Sykes and the rest of the men pounding along after me. We ducked past dusty bins of coal and water tanks slick with condensation. Two shots cracked by my head, and I fired without aiming at a man lying prone before us. He dropped his rifle with a groan just as another man darted out of a doorway and raised a pistol. A fusillade of bullets met him and spun him back into the room.

I stepped over the bodies and saw an aluminium ladder leading down to a brightly lit room. Sykes looked at it and shook his head. I gave him a wild grin and slid down the ladder before he could protest, throwing myself behind the wall of the observation room as I hit the floor. Two shots smashed into the ladder, one ricocheting through the thin side of the gondola so that a narrow spear of sunlight shone across the room through the hole. Sykes followed me down, his feet never touching the steps, and stood behind me with his pistol pointed at the ceiling.

“Ready?” I mouthed at him. When he nodded we both surged around the wall and into the control room itself. Four men in the white uniforms of Zambesi stood lined against one wall. Three others were being held closely by men wearing the leather flying outfits of our attackers.

“Stop. That’s far enough,” one of them ordered in a thick French accent. “If you come any closer I’ll kill him. Then you.” He held his pistol against the head of Zambesi’s captain.

“Let him go,” I countered, leveling the Webley at his head. “Your men are all dead. There is nowhere else for you to go.”

“Ah, as long as I have this gun and this man, I may go where I wish. Siam, perhaps. The King and I are old friends.”

I scowled at him. “I doubt the King of Siam would be pleased to acknowledge the friendship of a common pirate.”

He threw his head back and laughed jovially. “Pirates? Oh, non, non, non. We are not pirates, monsieur. We are republicans.”

“Republicans?” I asked in confusion.

Mais oui, republicans. Driven from our homeland by the Bourbons. I am Emile Noir, leader of this little band of exiles.” He gave a mocking little half bow, careful to keep his gun aimed at his hostage’s temple. He nodded towards one of his men. “This is Phan Dinh Phung, leader of our native allies. They are revolutionaries trying to shake off the yoke of their French colonial masters.”

The third man, who held a carbine pointed at the men lined against the wall, apparently merited no introduction. Unfortunately for him he was standing just a bit too far away from the hostage who was supposed to protect him. I swiveled slightly and pulled the trigger on the Webley, splattering his brains over the ballast control board.

Before the men could react I had swiveled back with the barrel of my pistol centered on Emile Noir’s head.

“And then there were two. Drop your guns, gentlemen.”

“And be hanged as a pirate? No, I don’t think so.” He streamed French at his companion.

Phan Dinh Phung moved in front of him, careful to keep well behind his hostage. Noir smashed the handle of his revolver into a window, knocking out all of the glass. The steamship we saw earlier churned along nearby. “Phan, allez-y,” Noir said.

Phan moved to the window, his gun still jammed in the back of the crewman’s head. He carefully climbed up on the frame and then flung himself into space. White silk billowed from his knapsack, and he floated gently down to the waves. Watchers on the steamship saw him and it changed course to go pick him up. Noir smiled in satisfaction and stepped in front of the window.

“I don’t know who you are, monsieur,” he said to me, “but I do not appreciate people interfering with my plans. One day we will meet again and you will pay for this.”

I smiled softly and aimed for his right eye. “My name is Captain Jack Branham. And I don’t think you need to worry about any future encounters.”

I squeezed the trigger of the Webley.

I was rewarded with a completely unsatisfying ‘click’ as the hammer fell on a spent round.

Noir grinned at me. “Au revoir, monsieur,” he said, and dropped over the side.