Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 2
THE DEATH OF KENT

 
small cover image

Chapter 1 - Trapped in Odusar
Chapter 2 - The Death of Kent
Chapter 3 - Return to Stanleyville
Chapter 4 - The Vengeance of Mor Teral
Chapter 5 - Assassins in Ehnvar Darsic
Chapter 6 - The Karthasa
Chapter 7 - The Silver Sea
Chapter 8 - Among the Martians
 

Within an hour Mor Teral and I stood reunited with Hicks, Kirkpatrick, and Prince Alexander John in the control room of Joanna's gondola. I quickly recounted our battle with the anarchists and Merewether's betrayal. Hicks and Kirkpatrick traded knowing glances, and the prince loosed a stream of curses at Kent's captain.

"Mrs. Wylie hinted that we should keep a close eye on Commander Merewether," Kirkpatrick said. "He used to work for the Syrtis Company, and he advanced far more quickly in the Cydonia Company than he should have, unless someone high up in the company was pulling strings for him. Unfortunately he and Kent were all that was available to escort Joanna, so we were stuck with him."

"What made you come back?" I asked. "You should have been most of the way to Stanleyville with His Highness by now. Not that I'm complaining, mind you."

Kirkpatrick nodded at Hicks. "When Kent caught up with us at Camp Fahrenheit, Merewether told us that you and your barbarian friend had been killed in battle with the anarchists. The young lieutenant here refused to believe it, though, and had his soldiers 'borrow' a couple of men from Kent's crew who he thought might be induced to tell the truth. Sure enough, after a few minutes alone with Hick's sergeant and the other Maatgon tribesmen, those ratings were quite eager to spill their guts. Hicks demanded that we return to find you, and the prince backed him up. Well, I could argue with the lieutenant, but not so much with His Royal Highness, so we primed the two crewmen from Kent with a story that since you were out of the picture I wanted to grab full credit for the rescue of the survivors of the first expedition and would try to get to Stanleyville ahead of Merewether, dropped them off, and snuck out in the middle of the night.

"We ran full speed, day and night, hoping to get back here and pick you up before Merewether figured out what we were really up to."

"So far we've been lucky," Hicks added, "but Merewether is no fool. He must be on his way after us by now."

"You're right about that, Lieutenant Hicks," Joanna's navigator said as he peered through the large binocular range finding glasses mounted on the deck. "Our luck just ran out." He pointed to the northwest. "Kent is there, about twenty miles out."

Kirkpatrick pushed him aside and swept the horizon with the glasses. When he verified the navigator's sighting he barked a curse and ordered his men to their posts. "Get us under way, right now. Engines at maximum power."

"We can't outrun them," Hicks pointed out.

"No, we can't," agreed Kirkpatrick. "But we've got about a quarter of an hour head start and we may be able to hide in the city until nightfall."

The docks where Hicks and Kirkpatrick had found us were about a mile away from the river mouth where we had initially entered the city, and Joanna's captain steered us towards it. Unfortunately the damage the airship had sustained during the battle with the Martians had reduced her top speed to about sixty miles per hour, and we could see Kent rapidly gaining on us. Kirkpatrick steered us north along the river and kept us running as fast as we could, scanning the way ahead for any gap in the buildings large enough to safely turn into and lose ourselves in the unmapped depths of the city. The streets and river bottom sped dizzyingly by less than a hundred yards below us.

"Why are we staying so low?" I asked.

"It will make it harder for them to find us. If they try to come in high, we'll be hidden behind the towers from them and they'd have to be right on top of us to see us. I want to encourage them to stay low and behind us."

Kirkpatrick finally spotted the break he had been looking for. "Through the gap to the west," he told the rudderman at the main wheel. "Hard to port."

Joanna slewed around and barreled up a broad avenue. The ruddy ball of the sun sinking in the west painted the towering walls of glass surrounding us in glowing scarlet.

"Reduce speed to thirty miles per hour."

"Are we going to make a break for it?" I asked the captain.

Commander Kirkpatrick stared towards the setting sun. "Not yet. If we leave the cover of the city too soon, Merewether will have a good chance of spotting us and overtaking us before dark. No, we'll just play hide and seek in the streets for a while, I think." He turned back to the rudderman. "Take us north through that next large cross street about a quarter of a mile ahead."

The next turn was a much tighter fit for Joanna's long body. The airship had to come to an almost complete stop to avoid smashing into the surrounding buildings as she twisted into the narrow gap between towers. Her highly skilled crew got us in without mishap, though, and Hicks reported that there was still no sign of Kent behind us. With less maneuvering room to work with, Kirkpatrick reduced our speed again so that we were crawling along at less than twenty miles per hour. Another broad east-west avenue cut across our path half a mile ahead.

"West again at the next turn, Captain?" the rudderman asked hopefully.

"No, let's stay on this street for a while. Merewether wouldn't expect us to run down anything this narrow."

Red light from the setting sun flooded the control room and half blinded us as Joanna slid through the intersection. I turned my head to avoid the glare just in time to catch a series of flashes from the street to the east. A second later, bullets began to ricochet off the buildings around us. Two rounds punched through the aluminium wall beside me and went straight through the other side of the gondola. Kent was racing towards us from a quarter of a mile away. Fortunately she was head on to us, so she could only bring one of her Maxim machineguns to bear.

"Increase speed to forty miles per hour," Kirkpatrick ordered, his voice calm and unhurried.

"Captain?" the rudderman questioned.

"Do it."

Flying at that speed through the narrow streets was enough to make us all anxious, and the poor rudder and elevator operators were soon soaked with sweat from the strain of keeping Joanna running straight down the middle.

"Will he try to follow us?" I asked.

"No, he was moving too fast. He would have overshot the intersection, and had to go back. That would take too long, so he'll have to go down to the next one and double back from there."

"What are we going to do?"

Kirkpatrick closed his eyes and consulted an inner map in his head. "At the next intersection, we turn to starboard and head back to the river. Once we reach it, we head south again. Hopefully he'll think we've continued running north to hide from him deeper in the city."

When he saw the intersection ahead, Commander Kirkpatrick ordered our speed cut, and we slowed to a crawl to make the turn. Even so, the turn was so narrow that Kirkpatrick had to pitch Joanna's bow up steeply to get through without scraping her sides. We could hear her aluminium beams groaning in protest at the extra stress this placed on her frame. Mor Teral clung tightly to a stanchion nearby and gave me a sickly grin.

"You see? I told you that staying with you would relieve my boredom, and we have not even left the city, yet."

As soon as we were lined up down the new street and headed east, Kirkpatrick had the crew level Joanna out and pour on the speed. I watched the way ahead, and it was not long before the opening to the river began to spread out before us.

"Kent just made the turn and they've started after us," Hicks called out from the rear of the gondola.

To the right of us, adjacent to the river, I saw several of the low buildings resembling warehouses like the ones I had seen earlier near the docks. That gave me an idea.

"Commander Kirkpatrick, when we reach the river, I want you to set me down on the roof of that low building with Hicks and the rest of the soldiers."

"What on earth for?"

"We're going to ambush Kent when she comes through."

"We're going to do what?" Hicks asked.

I explained my plan. Hicks and Kirkpatrick were skeptical, but they agreed that we had little choice since Kent was both faster and far more heavily armed than our own airship. Eventually Merewether would run us to ground, and Joanna would be done for.

A short time later I slid down Joanna's gangplank and dropped the six feet to the roof of the building we had chosen as our firing position, followed by Hicks, Mor Teral, and eleven soldiers. I had retrieved my Krag-Jorgensen rifle from Hicks, and it smacked sharply against my hip as I landed in a crouch to absorb the impact. Joanna never stopped and barely slowed down; once we were clear Kirkpatrick dumped ballast and the airship shot up almost two hundred yards as she leaped to her position opposite us on the other side of the avenue. With the sun behind her and the towers around us hidden in shadow, I doubted that Merewether spotted the maneuver.

The rooftop was flat and mostly clear of debris, but a cluster of thick pipes about two feet thick ran along the centerline of the building. I swiftly arranged the men behind it so they would have some little protection from Kent's machine guns, and we crouched down with our rifles at the ready. We did not have long to wait. Less than five minutes later Kent surged through the buildings and into the open space above the river. She was running low, barely a hundred yards above the ground, which gave us an excellent shot at her and prevented her crew from seeing Joanna floating high above them.

"Remember your targets," Hicks said. "Fire."

Our rifles spoke as one and sent a volley of bullets smashing into Kent's gondola, shattering windows and punching holes through the aluminium sides.

"Fire."

More shots crashed into Kent's gondola. Merewether responded by slewing the airship around to present her machine guns broadside to us. Their return fire began to chew into the pipes and rooftop around us.

"Fire," Hicks sang out over the clangor, and another cloud of smoke from the black powder Lee-Metford rifles rolled over the roof. By now the smoke was thick enough that the gunners on Kent must have been having a hard time seeing us, but they could lay down enough fire that it was not really necessary. I saw two men to my right fall as a burst cut through them, and a barrage of cursing came rose from my left, but I did not have the attention to spare for anything but Kent at that moment.

"She's turning, almost there, Hicks."

"Independent fire; fire at will!" the lieutenant shouted.

Our remaining men peppered the gondola as quickly as they could pull the trigger. Merewether or whoever was in charge on Kent's ravaged bridge swung the airship out and reversed the engines, trying to maneuver her edge on to our hiding place behind the pipes. Another man fell beside me, and then another, but then Kent finally maneuvered into the position Kirkpatrick and I had agreed upon.

Joanna was poised a hundred feet above her, broadside so that the airships made a 'T', with Kirkpatrick's machineguns poised to rake the entire length of Kent. She was masked from us by Merewether's airship, but we saw Kent stagger in midair and knew that Kirkpatrick had ordered his men to open fire. Distracted by our attack from the rooftop, Merewether did not realize what was happening until it was too late. Kent's tail dipped as Kirkpatrick's machineguns shredded her rear gasbags and she slewed around, the starboard engines racing at full power as a stream of bullets ripped through the engines on the port side. The violent maneuvering silenced her machineguns, though, and Hicks and I hurriedly moved the surviving soldiers into a spot that offered more cover.

Desperate to save his dying vessel, Merewether dumped ballast in an attempt to gain height and time. Kent's bow angled up thirty degrees as her remaining engines strained to put distance between her and her attackers. By then Joanna's machineguns had smashed the control surfaces in the tail and Merewether had little ability to maneuver. Fire continued to pound the stricken airship, and although her speed increased she was losing altitude and unable to maintain her heading. As we watched, she smashed headlong into one of the towers across the river about twenty-five stories up, her fore sections crumpling like a tin can beneath a heavy boot. The last of her forward gasbags ruptured, and she slid sickeningly down the face of the building. As the wreckage crashed to the ground, the impact burst open her fuel oil tanks and a spark set flames roaring into the sky.