Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 3
RETURN TO STANLEYVILLE

 
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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
 

With the damage to Joanna it took us five days to get back to Stanleyville. We made one stop at Camp Fahrenheit, the first Odusar expedition's base camp, to stock up on desperately needed supplies. When we landed we found the camp ransacked; apparently the Martian tribes in the area had finally taken notice of the airships landing there and they had decided to clean the place out. Most of the supplies were missing or destroyed, but we gathered what little we could find and were swiftly on our way once more. It was right around noon of the fifth day after we left Odusar that the navigator spotted Stanleyville on the horizon.

The watch at the aerodrome spotted us as well, and by the time we drifted in a sizeable welcoming party was arrayed on the landing field to meet us. A full company of Cydonia Company regulars wearing their scarlet dress tunics stood drawn up in parade ranks, and two troops of rinnian-mounted native cavalry in midnight blue formed twin lines on their flanks. A gaudy collection of senior company officers and functionaries completed the ensemble, standing a fair ways apart from the common soldiery as if to emphasize the social distance between them.

Joanna lowered her mooring ropes, and the men on the ground quickly reeled us in. His Royal Highness Prince Alexander John was the first down the gangplank, followed by an honor guard made up of Lieutenant Hicks and his remaining soldiers. The first expedition survivors went next, with Joanna's crew behind them, while Mor Teral, Kirkpatrick, and I brought up the rear.

"This way," I told them, slipping around the gangplank and behind the nearest building to avoid the crowd.

I had seen Governor General of the Cydonia Company Sir Henry Napier and his toady Lieutenant General Barry Hamilton standing at the forefront of the knot of officials and was in no mood to deal with them. Margaret was there, too, and she threw me an ugly look when she saw that we were sneaking away. I tried to feel bad about that, but could not quite manage it. I had rescued her princeling and a number of other people besides; as far as I was concerned I had held up my end of our arrangement. I had not signed up for any public appearances or the privilege of being fed a line of insincere compliments by the Governor General while he looked me over for a handy place to slip in a knife. She could come and find me when the circus was over.

We bundled into a steam taxi waiting at the road by the aerodrome and I told the driver to take us to El Nivel, Charlotte's bar. I did not think Margaret would have any trouble tracking me down there. The car utterly enthralled Mor Teral. During the long trip from Odusar I had explained the workings of the airship and its steam engines until he understood the basic principles of its operation, but this was something on a smaller and more comprehensible scale that he could imagine driving himself. He even asked the driver if he might, but the driver adamantly – and quite wisely in my opinion – refused the request. Kirkpatrick and I had to struggle mightily not to laugh at our friend, who appeared as crestfallen as a child denied a much-desired treat. When we stepped out of the taxi at El Nivel, Mor Teral watched it drive away for several seconds before he sighed and followed us inside.

"Captain Branham?"

I recognized the man from my previous visit. "Yes?"

The man bobbed his head. "I'm Dan Bock, sir. I run the place when Miss Beira is away. She left orders that you was to be given the run of the place if you came in, and your drinks was to be on the house. Would you gentlemen be wanting a table?"

"Please. Something secluded if you can manage it. We need a bit of quiet so we can talk."

"Certainly. Follow me." As we passed through the practically deserted main room he frowned back at us. "I don't suppose you've seen Miss Beira, have you sir? Nobody has seen her for several days now, and it's not like her to up and vanish like that without leaving word."

I shrank inside at the worry evident in his voice. "As it happens I have seen her, Mr. Bock. She was abducted by the same bunch I saved her from the last time. I am trying to come up with a plan to rescue her from them again."

Bock's eyes grew hard. "Sir, if you need any help, anything at all, you just let me know. Me and the boys will be there like a flash. There's not one of us wouldn't walk through fire for Miss Beira."

I thanked him and as he dropped us off at our table I ordered whiskey for me and for Kirkpatrick, and ceslin, a hearty local beer brewed from native Martian grain, for Mor Teral. He sniffed skeptically at the golden liquid, but after the first taste his demeanor changed to one of hearty approval.

"Better than the best we make at home," he said, and downed half the mug.

I turned to Kirkpatrick. "How long to get Joanna travel worthy again?"

He frowned. "Branham, I don't think you understand how badly we were hurt. She needs repairs that can't be done in Stanleyville. They just don't have the facilities. I'll have to top off our helium and take her down to Tharsis. She's going to be laid up for weeks while they work on her."

"Then I've got to find another airship."

"Did you happen to look at the aerodrome when we came in? There's not a lot there right now. Besides," he said, tossing off the last of his whiskey, "from what you and Hicks said, you're going to need a regiment if you're planning on going back into those towers after Miss Beira. For that kind of manpower and the airships to move them, your only option is Tharsis or Syrtis. You'll never be able to scrape them up here."

"I won't be able to get them from Tharsis or Syrtis, either. They're not about to do me any favors."

"Perhaps we need to consider a new plan," Mor Teral suggested. "If we cannot count on strength, then we must use stealth. There may be other ways into those towers that I did not find, simply because their patrols were so lax that I felt no need to look."

"We still need an airship to get back to Odusar. And I can't afford to wait weeks or months for Joanna to be repaired."

Our debate ended there when Margaret appeared and flung herself into an empty chair. She glared at me once, then shrugged it off and let the anger flare out.

"Congratulations on making it back in one piece, Captain Branham. I assume that since Kent did not return with you that our suspicions of Merewether were well founded?"

"Quite. You might have mentioned your suspicions to me, Mrs. Wylie."

She brushed that away. "You had to work with him, Captain, and you're as subtle as a Hottentot at a tea party. He would have known he was under suspicion and been more careful. Now, will you please fill me in on your adventures?"

I introduced her to Mor Teral, and between the three of us we covered everything that had happened from the time our party had left Stanleyville. She grew pale when I told how we had found Charlotte in the cell next to Prince Alexander John, and she was staring at me bleakly as I finished.

"Why didn't you go back for her?"

Kirkpatrick answered that one. "Joanna was leaking helium like a sieve. I told Captain Branham we had no choice but to leave immediately for Camp Fahrenheit if we were going to make it back to Stanleyville. Besides, we had too few soldiers to attempt an attack on the anarchists' base, and now that they were alerted the odds of sneaking in and pulling off another rescue were abysmal. The best hope was to get back here and get reinforcements."

I caught her gaze and looked into her cool, green eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Jack," she said softly, "you're a good boy but sometimes you can be terribly naïve."

"Margaret," I growled.

"She told me not to, that's why. Not that I would have anyway. Letting you know would have been her business. For one thing it is dangerous to let anyone know who she is. There are a lot of people who would love to get their hands on her, as you have discovered. For another, she didn't want to risk scaring you off. Poor girl was completely smitten by that knight in shining armor stunt you pulled the first night you were here. She was afraid that if you found out who she really was you'd be off like a shot. I tried to tell her that you didn't have that much sense, but she insisted I promise not to tell you anyway."

"I've got to get back to Odusar, Margaret."

"I know that, Jack, but you're going to have to give me some time. Be patient for a little while and let me see what I can manage. And do try to keep your head down. Just because Merewether failed doesn't mean you're in the clear; they'll try for you again."

I shook off the concern in her voice. "I'll worry about that. You worry about finding me an airship."

"Yes, Captain Branham. Will there be anything else, Captain Branham?" She tossed her head in exasperation, gave us a mock curtsey, and flounced out the way she had come in.

Mor Teral followed her with his eyes. "I can see I made the right decision when I followed you from Odusar. Your knack for landing yourself in interesting situations seems to be matched by an ability to land in the company of beautiful women."

"I believe you'll find the two are related," Kirkpatrick muttered.

"Are you quite finished?"

Kirkpatrick stood up. "Actually, I am. I need to go check on the emergency repairs on Joanna. Do stop by before we leave for Tharsis, fellows. I'd like a chance to toss back a few more with you before we go our separate ways."

We shook hands and agreed to visit Joanna before she lifted. Mor Teral and I had no other demands on our time, so we spent the afternoon equipping ourselves with the best weapons and gear Stanleyville had to offer. Mor Teral's eyes glowed when I handed him a Krag-Jorgensen rifle identical to mine, and he spent a fair amount of time picking through a selection of native Martian knives, but he showed little interest in the pistols. Given the poor accuracy of the pistols made by the tribes, not to mention their alarming tendency to blow up in your hand when fired, it was understandable. I found him a pair of Webley revolvers anyway, though, knowing that once he had a demonstration of their effectiveness he would change his mind.

We spent the following night carousing with Kirkpatrick and his men through the worst dive bars in Stanleyville, so we were not at our finest when Margaret banged on our door around noon. My first instinct was to ignore her in hopes that she would go away, but then I remembered that it was Margaret and there was no chance of that. She would only get louder.

"Get up, Jack, you layabout. I've found you a ship."

"All right, all right. Half a moment."

I prodded Mor Teral's snoring form with a foot as I gathered my clothes. "Up and at 'em," I sang out cheerfully. If I had to be up, I was going to ruin his day as well.

Bloodshot eyes glared daggers at me, but he staggered to his feet and began gathering his belongings, muttering imprecations in Martian the whole time. Margaret gave us two minutes before she resumed pounding on the door. Mor Teral yanked it open.

"Enough, woman. Desist."

She stood in the hallway regarding us with one eyebrow raised. Lieutenant Hicks was there as well, looking abashed. "I apologize for disturbing your beauty sleep," Margaret said, "but we need to get this over with so I can go home and pack."

"You're leaving?"

"The Colonial Office asked that I escort His Royal Highness back to Earth. They want him chaperoned and kept on a very tight leash until we can hand him off to the Prince of Wales."

"Is the lieutenant going with you?"

"No. I twisted Lieutenant General Hamilton's arm and had him assign the young man to you, permanently, as an aide. Keeper was the word I used, but they don't seem to have that as an official title in the colonial army."

I looked at Hicks, who shrugged with an apologetic half-smile. When Margaret caught you up in her whirlwind, you had little choice about the direction you took or where you ended up. I smiled back; if I had to be stuck with someone, the lieutenant was a good choice.

"So where are we off to?"

Margaret gathered us all up and started down the hall. "The aerodrome. Lieutenant Hicks will show you where."

As we left the hotel, Margaret set off up the street towards Government House without waiting for a taxi. The rest of us took a ride to the aerodrome, where six airships floated at their moorings in the cool Martian breeze. Three were obviously military, and two others were large commercial vessels. Hicks took us past all of those to the small, battered ship tethered at the end of the line.

She was tiny next to the others, only two hundred fifty feet long, and her rust-brown hull was weather stained and heavily patched. Four steam turbines jutted out of her hull, the paint peeling from their dented nacelles to show the dull, grey metal beneath. We followed Hicks up the narrow gangplank, and I was very pleased to see that the metal and wooden parts inside were all lovingly polished despite the rough look to the exterior. A steep staircase led up into the bowels of the ship, but we ducked through the door leading forward and found ourselves in the chart room in the gondola, right behind the control room.

A shaggy bear of a man wearing stained grey dungarees stood as we entered. He was short, a barrel torso planted on stubby legs, and had arms like a blacksmith. The top of his head was bald as an egg, but half his ruddy face was hidden by a truly impressive set of whiskers. Sharp brown eyes regarded us from beneath bushy eyebrows.

"Lieutenant," he rumbled a greeting, and stuck out a grubby paw. "I'm Commander Mordecai Jackson. You must be Captain Branham."

I shook his hand firmly, trying to place his odd accent. "Yes. Mrs. Wylie told me that you might be able to help me."

"I owe the lass a favor or two, and your name is not unfamiliar to me, Captain. Mrs. Wylie was light on the details, though. What do you need an airship for?"

I explained as briefly as I could about our earlier expedition to Odusar and my desire to rescue Charlotte. Jackson listened raptly, his brow furrowed in concentration, and let me finish without interrupting. When I was done he tilted his head back and peered at me down the length of his nose.

"That's quite the story, Captain. Now, you know your own mind best, but it sounds to me like what you need is six armored cruisers and a regiment of foot."

I smiled grimly. "You're quite right, Commander Jackson. But since that is impossible, I have to take what I can get. No offense."

The man swept one burly arm in a wide circle. "This is Aurora. The Royal Geographical Society commissioned her about ten years ago to ferry small expeditions to archaeological sites. Unfortunately the designers miscalculated her lifting capacity, and she can only carry eight men in addition to her crew. She'll do better than eighty knots in a pinch, though, and she's good at getting into and out of tight places."

"Royal Navy?" I guessed. There was just something about him that said navy.

"Yes, sir. Twenty years, most of it in the West Indies squadron. I was a lieutenant when they retired me."

I realized why I could not place his accent. "You're from the Americas?"

"That's right. My family has been in the Virginia Colony for almost two hundred and fifty years," he said proudly. "I've always had a fair dose of wanderlust, though, and wanted to try my hand at something different when I retired, so I came here. Not a bad place to live when you're on half pay."

"Well, Commander Jackson, what do you say? Will you take me and my friends to Odusar?"

Jackson scratched his head. "I reckon I will, if you can afford it, Captain. But it's a dangerous place you're going, and the men don't work for free. I've got nine crew, and they're going to want £100 each for a job like this. It's going to cost you another £1,000 for Aurora; that's just enough to cover my expenses for fuel and supplies for the trip."

Mrs. Wylie had deposited the second £5,000 check into my bank the day I returned with the prince, so I did not even blink. "Done. I'll throw in a £50 bonus for each man and another £500 for you when we return, Commander."

He shook my offered hand vigorously. "You have yourself an airship, Captain."