City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey

Chapter 5

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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

THE CAPTAIN HAD ZAMBESI UNDERWAY again in short order, and the crew moved systematically through the ship cleaning up and assessing the damage. A few bullets had passed through the helium gas cells, but the leaks were not serious and temporary patches would get us to Singapore. Three crewmen and one passenger had been killed during the attack. There was some talk of following the pirates’ steamship with Zambesi, but the captain quickly put an end to that by pointing out both our vulnerability to rifle fire and our total inability to do anything to the pirates even if we caught up with them.

Sykes had lost two of his men in addition to Corporal Singh. Two others were wounded, as was the Colour Sergeant himself. A bullet had creased his left side as we charged through the keel corridor, and he muttered curses under his breath as the ship’s doctor cleaned and bandaged the painful gouge. I think the curses were more for the loss of Corporal Singh than because of the wound, though. They had served for some time in India together before they were recruited to the Hong Kong Regiment.

Eight more hours put us at Singapore. The first we saw of it was the Crawfurd Aerodrome, whose forty-five stories dominate the city. The closer we got, the more imposing it became until the mind just refused to believe in a building so immense. The top fifteen stories are devoted to housing airships like Zambesi, while the rest are comprised of vast warehouses and the offices of trading firms from all over the world.

Zambesi made its way to one of the dozens of protruding decks at the top of the structure, and released her forward mooring cables. Steam driven hooks snagged them and attached them to the mooring tower, which began reeling us in. When we were thirty feet from the tower, the tower began inching backwards on a system of rails into the depths of the enormous hangar, and Zambesi reeled out her rear mooring cables. The hooks again captured the cables, this time attaching them to heavy steel blocks attached to the mooring tower rails.

The combined actions of the mooring cables on the tower and the blocks slowly aligned Zambesi parallel with the rails and guided her into the hangar. Hundreds of lights flared on as we crept into the cavernous bay, and we could see swarms of men pouring through doors the size of houses. They were there to transfer our cargo to the flatbeds of the trains that serviced the hangar, which would then ferry the cargo to one of the building’s twelve massive freight elevators.

Zambesi drifted to a stop and slowly settled to the hangar floor, and when she was stable the bridge crew ordered the gangplanks lowered for the cargo handlers. With nothing else to see, I went back to my stateroom while Sykes went to find my baggage and someone to guide us to the aethership awaiting me. It was well after midnight by that time, so it took a while to find someone who could act on the papers Sykes presented. The officials he did find wanted to hold us for questioning about the incident with the pirates, and hours passed in arguments with self-important East India Company functionaries before we finally stepped out into the muggy night air to look for a tram to take us to the docks.

At that time of night the tram was mostly empty, except for half a dozen grim-faced Indian sepoys who looked as if they were ready to repel an invasion all by themselves. One of our soldiers went over and chatted with them a while. He looked concerned when he came back and sat down by Sykes.

“They say the Chinese gangs are fighting over territory. There have been hundreds of people killed in the last week, and the fighting is carrying over from the slum districts into the merchant quarter and docks. There is rioting almost every night now, despite the curfews.”

The Chinese gangs in Singapore make the ones in Hong Kong look like a ladies’ croquet social, so I was glad we were not staying long enough to worry about them. The long day took its toll, and I leaned my head back and closed my eyes and drifted off to the gentle swaying of the tram.

I was jolted awake by someone urgently shaking my arm. “Sir.”

Colour Sergeant Sykes was crouched beside me. “What is it?”

“I think you had better wake up, sir. Looks like trouble.”

The Indian troops were arguing excitedly amongst themselves in Hindi. Flames lit up the night sky, consuming the block of small shops and dwellings a hundred yards to our right. Beneath the roar of the fires was another sound, deeper and more menacing, that seemed to rise and fall like the sound of the surf crashing on the shore. The Indians had unslung their rifles and crouched behind their seats with the barrels pointing out into the night, never slowing their rapid-fire exchange in Hindi.

“Better follow their lead, Colour Sergeant.”

About the time Sykes got his men ready, a wave of Chinese surged around the line of burning buildings. The mob rolled northwards with a deep, angry roar that sent shivers down our spines. They were in an ugly mood, and there would be no controlling them short of a massive display of force. From the darkness behind us came an answering roar, as another crowd of Chinese raced towards the fires, flinging torches at buildings that were not already being consumed by flames. The two groups smashed into one another like charging bulls, the shock of their meeting sending men reeling to the ground. They fought up close with sticks and knives, and hurled bricks at faceless targets. Now and again we heard the crack of a gunshot echoing through the streets, but those were thankfully few. The center of the rioting soon became so tightly packed in the narrow streets that the fighting devolved into a great shoving match, but small groups continually broke away so they could make better use of their weapons.

As the fighting spread, tendrils snaked out towards us. Suddenly the tram lurched to a stop, throwing us against the seats in front of us. The door of the tram engine flew open, and the crew jumped to the ground. The Indian sepoys in the car with us screamed curses at them, but the men fled into the night without so much as a backwards glance. Although the crew ignored the outcries of the sepoys, a group of rioters proved more attentive and they began frantically pointing at our tram and jabbering at one another. Scores of them broke away from the main group and ran towards us, brandishing their clubs and knives and screaming angrily in Chinese.

“Oh, hell. What did we do to set them off?” I asked Sykes. “We’re just taking a ride to the docks.”

“I’m sure I don’t know, sir. I’ve always ascribed to the live and let live philosophy, myself.”

The Indian soldiers were apparently not as tolerant as the colour sergeant. The six of them immediately began firing into the ranks of the onrushing Chinese, emptying their rifles as quickly as they could pull the triggers. I nodded at Sykes. There was no point in holding back, now.

“Independent fire!” he shouted over the crack of the Indian rifles.

Our men joined their fire to the sepoys, mowing down the men in the front ranks, but the rioters were out for blood and did not slow their charge. They would be upon us in seconds, and I did not care for the idea of being trapped inside the tram with our ammunition running low.

“Colour Sergeant, I think we should make a run for the docks while we have the chance. This tram is a deathtrap.”

“Yes, sir, I quite agree. Fix bayonets and follow me,” he ordered his men.

Sykes led the way off the tram just as the wave of rioters engulfed it. Bayonets and rifle butts quickly cleared a space around us, and we slowly fought our way through the crushing mob. I only had six shots in my revolver, and I wanted to save those for a dire emergency, so I scooped up a staff one of the rioters had dropped. The Chinese pressed in close around us, and we were hard pressed to fend them off. I ducked a club aimed at my head, and smashed my attacker’s jaw with the butt of the staff. He fell back among his fellows, spitting blood and teeth. I jabbed another in the solar plexus before he could brain Sykes, and spun back to block a knife thrust. Quickly reversing my staff, I cracked the man’s fingers and sent the blade arcing above the crowd.

We fought desperately against the seemingly endless tide of opponents, until after a while I began to feel like some strange fighting automaton, performing an endless cycle of parry, dodge, and thrust. I was so wrapped up in the fight that it took a while to notice that the mob around us had thinned considerably, our fierce resistance quenching their thirst for our blood. A few minutes later it was over; we had won through.

All of us had made it. Although some of the men had injuries, none were serious. We looked back at the tram to see how our fellow passengers the Indians had fared. The car we had ridden in now lay on its side, torn loose from the tram engine and overturned, with all of its windows smashed in. Thirty or forty Chinese milled around and on top of it. There was no sign of the sepoys. Sykes shook his head grimly, but no one offered to go back.

Half an hour later we staggered down Victoria Dock to a launch that would ferry us to the floating platforms outside New Harbor where the aetherships took off for the starry heavens.