Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 7
THE SILVER SEA

 
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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
 

I awoke after only a few seconds to a darkness so absolute that I thought at first the blow to my head had rendered me blind. After a few moments' disorientation I gingerly sat up and heard others moving about in the darkness. Commander Jackson banged about and emitted an unending stream of curses under his breath in both English and Martian and sometimes contriving extremely creative combinations of the two, until finally he gave a satisfied grunt and the gondola's cabin lights flickered back to life.

Aurora's gondola lay canted at a steep angle where we had fallen at the base of the line of trees. Inside, we had landed in a jumble against the port wall of the cabin, staring down through the windows at the stony ground four feet below us. The windows and structure of the gondola appeared intact, so I guessed that our fall had been slowed considerably by the remaining helium in the airship's gas cells. Around me the others pulled themselves to their feet and took stock of themselves and the equipment on the bridge. The crash had left us all battered and bruised, but one of Hick's soldiers had the only serious injury, a green-stick fracture sustained when he broke the lieutenant's fall against the ladder.

Once Jackson had satisfied himself that none of his men in the gondola had been badly hurt, he crawled up the ladder into the belly of the airship with two crewmen to check on the rest of the crew and the state of his craft. We could do little but wait and try to stay out of the crew's way as they made their way through the cabin and tested the controls and equipment. Almost an hour passed before the commander returned, his face grim and worn in the dim lights.

"It's not good," he announced as he dropped from the ladder. "One of the boilers is cracked and three of our gas cells ruptured. Some others are probably leaking. That's all we know for sure. And one of my machinists managed to break his leg falling down a gangway in the dark."

"Can you repair the damage?" I asked.

"Do we have any choice?" he growled back. "We can probably fix everything well enough to get her airworthy again, captain. The problem is the helium we lost when those gas cells went."

"I thought you carried extra helium in tanks," Hicks pointed out.

"We do, but we only carry enough to replace two cell's worth. Not three or more."

"So we're stuck here." The lieutenant's tone made it a statement, not a question.

Jackson nodded glumly.

"What about hydrogen?" I asked.

"We don't have any of that, either."

"No, but you've got some large batteries aboard. You could use them to create hydrogen from our ballast water." I had seen a demonstration of this principle at a "magic" show during my sojourn in Hong Kong. The magician placed two electrodes from a battery into a container of water, where hydrogen gas bubbled off of the negative electrode and was captured in a glass jar by the magician. When he tilted the jar and allowed the hydrogen to mix with air, the reaction produced a loud bang along with considerable consternation among the peasants who formed much of his audience.

The commander looked thoughtful. "I'll get with the engineers and see if we can make that work. It might be possible."

He vanished back up the ladder with his men. Once Mor Teral and I set our man's broken arm, we retired to corners of the gondola where we would be out of the way and waited. In the relative calm and quiet of our position on the valley floor, the others quickly dozed off, making up for the weary day spent sleepless while at the mercy of the storm.

I closed my eyes as well, but my mind continued to race so that sleep eluded me. Lost in the Martian wilderness, possibly marooned if Jackson could not repair Aurora and refill her gas cells, I felt farther than ever from Charlotte. My resolve to find her did not preclude my imagination from dwelling on her fate among the anarchists. I harbored no illusions that the brute named Martin would not find a way to dispose of her once her usefulness to them came to an end. The thought of her languishing in a sunless prison cell was bad enough. The thought that she might already be dead, her loveliness cast aside in some dust-filled room of a Martian ruin like so much rubbish, was purely unbearable. A fiery rage burned through me, reinforcing my determination that such a thing would not happen so long as I could still draw breath. At last I wrapped my stained silk robes tightly around me, settled back against the wall, and willed myself into sleep.

The morning sun glaring through the gondola windows woke me a few hours later. Sometime during the night the storm had passed or blown itself out, leaving a thick patina of dust on the upward-facing windows of the gondola. Through gaps in that film I saw slender trunks soaring into crowns of bluish-green branches that swayed gently against the cobalt blue vault of heaven. The deep-throated warbling of some four-winged Martian bird drifted down, and I felt such a sense of quiet peace as I had not known since leaving Hong Kong.

Not long after I awakened, the others began to stir, and after breaking our fast from the ship's stores we separated to our various tasks. Jackson and his men would begin their work on righting Aurora and seeing to her repairs, while I would take my party and explore further up the valley, looking for any clues as to where we might have landed. We took the time to replace our barbarian clothing with our normal attire and to retrieve our rifles before we set out, dropping awkwardly from the crooked gangplank to the rocky ground below.

A sharp breeze from the mountain peaks cut through the narrow dale, turning the cool air bitterly cold when it brushed by us. Clumps of thin, wiry grass straggled between piles of rough, grey stones, and a few hardy shrubs with colorless leaves clung grimly to crumbling basalt outcroppings. To the north, closer to where we had passed through the mountains, I could see the small stream I had spotted the night before. To the south, the valley continued to broaden past the trees that had captured Aurora and took a sharp kink to the west. I set us out in that direction, although I had little hopes of spotting any landmarks in this deep valley that might give me a clue to our location. I expected to see only more mountains closing off the other end of the valley.

An hour later we turned the corner and my expectations went out the window. There was nothing in the distance except slivers of blue sky and ponderous masses of clouds. The mountains to either side continued to frame the valley, but at the far end they dropped off completely so that it looked as though we were approaching the end of the world.

I hurried the others along and in fifteen minutes we stood panting in the thin air at the edge of a vertiginous cliff that plunged hundreds of feet almost straight down before merging into the gentler slopes of the mountain's knees. The mountains continued in an arc to either side of us in a ring so far around we could not see the other side even from our height, forming an immense basin for the smooth, mirror-like sea that filled the space between. A narrow strip of land about fifty miles wide covered in dense jungle separated the mountains from the seashore. A thick haze rising from the warm sea below obscured the horizon, but I did not need to see that far to know where we must be.

"It's incredible," Hicks said.

"More than you know. That's Vos Dalavra."

It took a second for the Martian words to sink in. "The Silver Sea?"

"Yes. We may be the first outsiders who have seen it since the Collapse. Stories say they shut themselves off from the rest of the world when things started to fall apart."

"How do you know this is it, Captain, if no one has seen it?"

"There are only two places in the southern hemisphere that still have large bodies of water," I replied. "Vos Dalavra and Vos Onbaran. Vos Onbaran – you've seen it on our maps as Hellas Sea – is on the opposite side of Mars from where we entered the storm. Too far away for us to have been blown there in less than a day. So this is Vos Dalavra."

"Vos Dalavra," repeated Hicks, savoring the exotic words. "Do you suppose anyone still lives around the sea?"

"That's a question I can answer," Mor Teral spoke up.

"How?" The barbarian had never left his native city of Odusar until escaping with me a few weeks ago, and had probably never so much as heard of the Silver Sea until two days ago.

He pointed down towards the jungle a mile or so to the east of us, where a tendril of dark smoke snaked high above the greenery.

I pulled up the Martian goggles I had found in the ruins of Odusar and slipped them over my eyes. By setting the magnification dial on the side of the right lens to the highest level I was able to follow the smoke to a clearing in the jungle. A pile of charred logs in the center of the clearing was the source of the smoke, and though the distance was too great to make out any other details, it was fairly obvious that this was no natural fire started by lightning. I scanned the jungle around the clearing hoping to see some sign of whoever had set the fire, but the growth was so thick that the entire British Army could have been marching under the trees and I would not have seen them.

"I think we should go take a look," I said, lowering the goggles.

"Curiosity killed the cat," Hicks muttered glumly and kicked a rock over the edge.

Mor Teral laughed and clapped the young man on the shoulder. "Come, Lieutenant, it has been almost a whole day since anyone has tried to kill Jack. No anarchists, no barbarians, no Martian swordsmen or company assassins. You cannot blame him for wanting to go down there – he must be bored half to death."

I gave them a cutting glare, but they pretended not to see and headed up into the valley. When we got back to Aurora we discovered that Jackson and his crew had managed to right the airship with a block and tackle, and they were busily making minor repairs and straightening the mess of the interior to make her livable while they worked on the major damage. We pitched in as best we could until the sun dropped beneath the mountains in the west, then grouped in the mess room to eat and discuss our plans. Commander Jackson was not at all happy with my ideas.

"Captain Branham, you have no idea what is down there," he said. "Man-eating animals, hostile natives, jungle diseases, there could be anything."

"Quite right," I answered. "And what do we have up here? A broken airship which you may be able to repair, but without enough helium to lift her even if you do. We don't know yet if you're going to be able to make hydrogen using the ship's batteries, but that's a job that will take many weeks even if it does work. Aurora does not have enough food aboard to feed us all that long, and there is nothing growing in this valley and no game to hunt.

"So we can sit here and slowly starve to death, or I can take some men into the basin and look for help. If nothing else we can at least see if there are any animals we can hunt and bring back up here."

"I'd like to know who you think is down there that can help us," Aurora's navigator spoke up. "The barbarians who live in the cities are not likely to be of much use in repairing an airship or producing quantities of helium."

"Not all of the Martian cities fell during the Collapse," I reminded them. "They were able to preserve several of the great cities in Tharsis, and there is a high level of civilization around the Hellas Sea. Stories from the time of the Collapse indicate that the cities around the Silver Sea blocked off all of the mountain passes to keep out the hordes of refugees. It's possible that they kept things together like the Martians at Hellas."

Hicks cleared his throat. "Um, Captain, I seem to recall you mentioning that the Hellas Martians are extremely hostile to humans."

"Yes, Hicks, but this isn't Hellas." I was concerned about that as well, but now was not the time to bring it up.

"If there are civilized cities here, I should like to see them," Mor Teral said. "I have spent all my life in the ruins of majesty. Just once I would like to see what our cities were like when they were alive."

The Maatgon tribesmen with us murmured in agreement. They had seen far more of their world than Mor Teral, but neither had seen a living Martian city. I let the argument continue far into the night, even though I had made up my mind before we returned to the airship. In the morning we would descend the cliffs into the lands of the Silver Sea.