Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 6
THE KARTHASA

 
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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
 

Or so we thought. Jackson pushed Aurora westwards as hard as he could through the night, navigating by compass and the stars, but as the sun peered above the horizon Hicks called to us and pointed back towards Ehnvar Darsic.

"We're being followed."

Two airships, sleek, grey sharks of the Tharsis or Syrtis companies, trailed us less than five miles back. The rising sun reflected scintillating gold off their gondola windows.

"Can you outrun them?"

Jackson shook his head. "Those are military cruisers, Captain, new models. They're about five knots faster than the best Aurora can manage."

The navigator cleared his throat. "You'll want to decide what you're going to do in a hurry, before we run into that."

A dark wall covered the world to the west. Even from miles away we could see the brilliant flashes of lightning searing through the towering clouds of the karthasa. Jackson blanched and fired off a stream of orders to his crew, abrupt as a burst of machinegun fire.

"Rudder, set course to two-seventy degrees. We'll have to try to run south before it until we can find a place to set down and moor her."

"Wait," I said. "What about the other airships? If we change course to due south, they'll be able to cut inside and catch up to us within an hour."

"What do you want me to do, Captain Branham?"

"Well, we can't outrun them, and we can't outfight them. If we stop and set down we're dead. What if we lose them in there?" I waved at the forbidding cliffs of dust.

Jackson stared at me, eyes wide. "In there? Are you mad?"

Mor Teral's jaw dropped, and he hooted with laughter. "Yes! Yes he is. But there is never a dull moment when he is around."

"If we go in there, we're dead."

"If we don't go in there, we're dead." I jabbed a finger towards our pursuers. "We've got a better chance pitting your ship and your skills against that storm than we have against those airships and their machineguns."

The commander gave them a long look and growled, "Rudder, make your course one-eighty degrees. Elevator, I want to get some room under us; take us up to two thousand feet." He settled to watch the storm as Aurora's bow tilted sharply up. "Now we see if we can get there before they catch up. It's going to be close."

Behind us the military airships ate up the distance, gaining on us slowly but steadily. To the west the dust clouds seemed to rise from the Tharsis plateau like mighty cliffs, towering tens of thousands of feet into the deep blue sky. Any hopes I had of flying over the storm faded quickly. The clouds scraped the very edge of the atmosphere, into its most nebulous fringes where Aurora could never hope to go. Our only choices were to go through it or around it, to deal with the storm or the enemy airships.

Soon powerful gusts of wind began to drum against the taut fabric covering Aurora's hull. Sweat poured from the rudderman as he fought to keep the airship on course against the buffeting from outside. Commander Jackson kept a close eye on our compass and altitude, quietly ordering corrections when what he saw did not suit him. The rest of us alternated between watching the monstrous storm and our pursuers. We could no longer see anything above us or to the sides except black clouds mottled with lightning stretching out to infinity. After a few minutes Aurora's hull began to shudder with the strain of making headway against the blasts emanating from the west. Jackson gave it a couple more minutes, judging the distance to the front carefully, and flipped the switch to turn on the cabin lights against the growing darkness.

"Rudder, change course to two-forty degrees. Elevator, bring us up another thousand feet. This is going to get rough."

Aurora shifted so that she was running almost parallel to the storm front. A mighty gust of wind smashed broadside into us and set us rocking dizzyingly until the men at the elevator and rudder got us straightened out and steady again. I glanced back to the east to see how our pursuers fared; one was less than a mile away, its engines fighting the ever-increasing wind to bring him alongside us for the coup de grace. The other had shifted course to try to cut off our escape to the south, but since its hull was much bigger with a correspondingly larger surface area than Aurora's, it was having a difficult time staying on course.

"Rudder, change course to two-ten degrees," Jackson said quietly, angling us further into the maelstrom.

Billows of powdery dust the color of old blood swirled past the windows. Within seconds the storm had folded in around us, cutting off any sight of the airships chasing us. Aurora shook and shuddered and yawed in the wind's fierce grip, and we were dashed forcefully against the cabin walls. The rudderman could no longer maintain course against the pressure of the wind on our airship's tail. Slowly the storm forced us around until we were running with it, the wind at our back. As we stopped fighting, the buffeting died down to a light jostling which we scarcely felt. Lightning cracked deafeningly nearby, half-blinding us with its glare.

Commander Jackson sank wearily against the ballast board. "That's it. We're at the mercy of the storm, and we'll fly with it until it dies off or we run into something. I'd really rather not have that happen, so let's take her up another thousand feet."

Visibility dropped to nothing; a thick blanket of dust cut us off from the rest of the world, with only an occasional break in the clouds offering a glimpse of the ground far below us. Jackson had the engineers reduce power to our engines so that we just coasted along with the storm. I am not sure if it made us any safer, but it made the commander feel better about our predicament so I suppose it was not a complete waste. For all of that day and into the night the winds pushed us steadily south-southwest. We could be certain of neither our heading nor our true airspeed, so after twelve hours we had no real idea of where we were. Jackson's dead reckoning estimates told us we had crossed the equator sometime in the morning and we were now somewhere deep in the southern hemisphere, but he was unwilling to narrow his guesses any further.

That night we slept as best we could despite the constant rumbling thunder and the flashes of lightning that went off like bunches of flashbulbs and illuminated the gondola as though it was mid-day. Sudden gusts of wind heaved Aurora around like a child's plaything, jolting us awake as we were tumbled about the deck and into walls and stanchions. On every side the wind wailed and whined and rattled the gondola, trying to get in. It made for a miserable night.

I found an unoccupied bench in the chart room and tried to get comfortable. Eventually I dozed off, but it was still the middle of the night when cries from the control room jerked us all awake.

"Mountains ahead! Hard to port. Full angle on the elevators – we need to climb."

The rudderman frantically spun his wheel and we all went sliding as Aurora twisted hard against the wind. I scrambled back to my feet, and through the windows facing south saw a mighty range of sharp, snow-covered peaks less than a mile away through a gap in the clouds. They looked like jagged teeth waiting to crush us.

Elevators and rudders fought against our forward momentum and the force of the wind, and Aurora slowly clawed her way higher, but we could all see that it would not be enough. The mountains rushed at us, visible now even through the billows of dust that rose up in the narrowing space between us.

"Rudder, turn us to two-eighty-five; maximum power to the engines," Jackson called out, struggling to be heard over the howling wind. "There's a pass," he pointed towards a dark gap between the peaks, "if we can reach it."

We felt a lurch as the engines revved up and sent the airship scudding in a tight arc towards the pass. The breach in the mountain's ramparts appeared in the front windows of the gondola, close enough to touch, but the storm winds continued pushing us south, straight for the rocky slopes. Hicks had a death grip on the ladder to the overhead hatch, his pale face locked on the terrible vista appearing out of the clouds before us. Mor Teral and I exchanged a quick glance and braced ourselves as best we could. We were not going to make it.

At the last minute a gust of wind gave the airship a sharp nudge that saved her, so that we barreled into the chasm between the mountain peaks rather than being dashed to pieces on their rocky slopes. On either side of us forbidding cliffs of stark, cold granite walled us in. Within seconds we plunged into impenetrable gloom as they shut out what little light the storm allowed. We might as well have been trapped in some cave deep underground. Jackson flipped on the outside lights, but against that stygian blackness they proved of little use.

"Engines, reduce power to twenty percent. Elevator, start taking us down slowly, about five degrees. There may be a sheltered spot in here where we can set down and ride out the storm. Rudder, keep us off of those cliffs."

Aurora started on her gentle descent. The lights showed us nothing but more of the same grim slate outcroppings rising slowly beside us, and nothing at all before or below us. Long minutes passed in silence; none of us wanted to take our eyes from the narrow passage ahead or risk distracting the crew for a fatal moment that could plunge us into the ground or smash us against the cliffs. At last the gorge broadened, the gap we had passed through widening into a twisting little valley nestled far down in the hidden depths of the mountains. Great chunks of granite choked the narrow throat leading from the pass we had entered through, but as we descended further the valley floor smoothed out into a shallow basin.

"Everyone keep your eyes open and look for a place we can moor the ship," Jackson told us.

The valley continued to spread out, until it was wide enough that we could turn the airship around if we had to. Aurora sailed along perhaps a hundred feet above the ground, now, low enough to make out some details with her lights. I saw a tiny stream pass beneath us, undoubtedly fed by runoff from the mountain snows, and here and there a bit of hardy brush clung stubbornly to the cold, stony ground. Then before us a line of tall, slender shapes appeared out of the gloom.

Commander Jackson leaped to his feet. "Engines full reverse," he screamed.

Fate decided she was not on our side that day. A great gust of wind channeled through the mountain pass gripped Aurora and hurled her forward, at the same time twisting her sideways so that we approached the shapes broadside. A row of impossibly tall trees soaring higher than redwoods from Earth formed a thick net along the end of the valley, and the winds roaring through the pass were pushing Aurora straight into them.

I heard Commander Jackson shouting frantic orders, but by then it was too late. We collided with a horrible crashing and splintering sound, followed by the singing crack of high-tension wires separating in Aurora's hull. The trees sprang back and rolled the airship off of their trunks, and with a sickening lurch we dropped towards the valley floor a hundred feet below. I felt myself falling, hanging in midair for a second, then something crashed into the back of my head and I knew no more.