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Authors: Daniel Ottalini

Roma Aeronautica (7 page)

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“Medico,” Alexandros called across the bridge, shaking his head as the injured cadet was helped away.

Mentally kicking himself for not attending to all his other duties, he stood abruptly and nearly collided with his acting first officer, Furtis Ionia. The two men exchanged salutes.

“Captain, we’ve got a message from airfleet command.” He paused, a big smile coming to his face.

“The wireless transmitter is working?” Alexandros asked in surprise.

“Yes, sir! Cadet Fortes managed to jury-rig a connection point, so we were able to patch in to HQ. They want us to provide air cover for a convoy that should be passing to our southwest. Evidently, they’ve had a big problem with pirates,” he added.

Alexandros smiled and walked over to the speaking tube. This was his first time ordering his ship to battle stations.
Hopefully, we don’t break something else this time. Like the engine.

“All hands to stations, level two. Man all observation points and be on the lookout for a wet navy convoy.” Alexandros chuckled at how the water and air navies could be classified as wet and dry.
Perhaps salty and breezy would be better?

Minutes went by as the cadets searched for the convoy. The sunlight reflected off the sparkling waters of the ocean, blinding the cadets and forcing them to work in shifts to keep from permanently damaging their vision. They were forced to make do without the benefit of spyglasses or binoculars, as they had been… misplaced… before their departure.

Misplaced my non-traitorous behind. I’m getting the feeling that someone really doesn’t want this mission to be successful.
Sounds of screeching and thumping came from below.

Oh gods, not the engine. Please not the engine
. Some deity must have heard, as the sounds subsided. The door to the engine room flew open, and a thick plume of black smoke emerged, followed by Cadet Tuderis. The man was covered in black soot. Only his eyes remained free of grime, protected by the pair of engineer’s goggles he wore.

“By the gods, Captain, I swear I’ll have to rebuild that engine by the time this voyage is done,” Tuderis yelled across the deck, his frustration at the engine obvious.

“We make do with what we have, Cadet Engineer, and I know you’ll get us there and back in one piece.”

“One charred piece, maybe. You won’t be able to go at full speed sir, the engine is acting up again,” Tuderis informed him.

Alexandros cursed, then gave reluctant orders to slow to half speed. The engine noise subsided further, and Tuderis, smiling gratefully, gave a sloppy salute before descending into the depths of the engine room again.

Can something please go right on this trip? Please?
he prayed.

Finally, a call came up from the starboard bow.

“Captain! Fleet in sight! Three points to starboard!”

“Excellent! Helmsman, plot a course…” He did a brief calculation, then hesitated before ordering the move. He walked over to the navigation station inside in the small wheelhouse and checked their current estimated position, then estimated the location of the fleet. “Plot a course to the west-northwest
. And let’s drop down to just 500 feet. I want to try and communicate with the convoy lead.”

The airship descended, moving in to follow the convoy as it left white trails across the pearly blue-gray expanse. There were eight ships in the convoy, large vessels with paddlewheels, chugging along. Seven of the vessels appeared to be cargo haulers, large and tub-like.
Probably impossible to handle during storms
, he thought.

The last vessel was very different. It looked like a long wedge of metal with two protected paddlewheel mounts in the rear. The vessel rode lower in the water than the cargo haulers, but was more predatory in appearance. From above, the warship’s ram was visible just below the ocean’s surface, sunlight glinting off the metal projection. A circular, slope-sided structure with portholes for artillery pieces was built aft of that, followed by the funnels and command room, and then the bulkier portion of the ship that housed the two armored paddlewheels.

What an ungainly construct,
Alexandros mused as he motioned for his signals operator to join him. The airship had descended now to the point that they could see people walking about on the warship’s gantries and walkways.

“Have they responded to our wireless message yet?” he queried First Officer Ionia. The first officer passed the message down to the wireless room, then shook his head at the reply.

“Sir, there’s someone on deck signaling us,” the signalman reported in. “It appears they do not have wireless capability.”

Alexandros cursed. “Naturally, the navy’s oldest ships have the oldest technology.” He sighed. “Very well, Signalman, please inform them that we are here to help escort them to Cydonia on Creta.”

The signalman saluted before pulling out his communication flags and beginning the complicated dance of sending a message to the naval warship.

In the meantime, Alexandros ordered his crew back to their regular duty schedule.

The rest of the day progressed as normal. As did the day after that. For days on end, the airship shadowed the convoy, the routine droning on and on. Alexandros tried not to allow his men to become accustomed to this. He ran drills and did inspections, had his men switch positions to improve their knowledge and training. To their credit, Alexandros was impressed at how the men responded to his constant coaching. Their response time improved, and their navigation and repair skills grew with each passing day. Even with the multitude of small repairs that the airship seemed to require, she stayed aloft and mobile, which was about all Alexandros could ask. In concert with the warship, the HMS
Lorica,
they even arranged for target practice, shooting barrels in the water from high above.

It happened in the early morning on their twelfth day of the escort tour.

“Sir, the
Lorica
reports that it has lost sight of the
Fila Maria
. They are requesting we investigate
.”

Alexandros’s sleep-addled brain leapt at the opportunity to do something.

“Inform the
Lorica
that we will be leaving station and sweeping rearwards,” he called out.

The airship’s control room began to buzz with increased activity as fresh crewmen manned posts, and a steady stream of reports came in. The pitch of the engine grew sharper as the large propeller blade spun faster, the rudder pushing the ship to starboard. The ship turned, providing a new view to the crew as they doubled back on their search route.

“She must have gone missing during the night,” Alexandros mused as he scanned the horizon with his spyglass. “It’s only about an hour after dawn.”

Even now, the fresh crew were stifling yawns at their posts. The bright morning sun left shadows on the deck as the ship turned, blinding the observers and causing Alexandros to squint.

A moment passed, and the airship was back on the correct heading.

“Sir,” his first officer called to him. Alexandros turned and walked over to the man as he stood at the navigation desk. “I was looking back along our track to see where we might have lost the ship. According to the night watch, there were no storms or bad weather along our passage.” Ionia briefly read a note handed to him by an aide before handing it to the cadet captain.

“Last confirmed sighting of the
Fila Maria
is just after midnight. Were the night crews sleeping on duty? How could they lose a ship? There should be eight points of light on the water. When there are only seven, it is a problem!” Alexandros stated sardonically.
Unfortunately, I’m not surprised, given the men aboard
.

“Nevertheless, sir, I noticed that there were a lot of small islands dotting back along our path. The Peloponnese peninsula is famous for them.” His finger traced along the sheer multitude of small islands and inlets that peppered the waters of the
Mare Mediterrane
.

Alexandros growled at the map. “Pirates.”

Ionia nodded. “Or shipwreck. Smugglers. Rebels.”

Alexandros concurred, “But probably pirates.”

Ionia sighed. “Why do I feel like it is always pirates? Why can it never be a simple shipwreck?”

Alexandros laughed, a big booming sound that echoed off the walls. The crew stopped and looked at him for a moment.

“Our men are too good for a mere shipwreck. Pirates are a much more exciting challenge,” he boasted, conscious of the looks of his men upon him. “I have an idea. Can you push a message through to the airbase at Corinthus?”

The wireless operator nodded hesitantly.

“Well, can you or can’t you?”

“I’ll need more altitude, sir. And perhaps a new machine?” he asked hopefully. Alexandros shook his head.

“Then at least I can probably punch it through to Helos. They should have a more powerful transmitter there,” the cadet opined.

Alexandros nodded.

“Sir, Helos does have a recon skimmer wing.”

“That’s better than nothing. Request their help and see what we get. In the meantime, let’s scour the Gulf of Laconia for the
Fila Maria
. It must be here somewhere.”

With their request for help received and acknowledged, the airship continued zigzagging back across the route of the previous night. It was slow going for several hours. Although the airship was small, it was still difficult to get close to some of the tiny islands and hamlets without risking an errant wind blowing them off course or dashing them into the limestone cliffs. Their engine became increasingly noisy as the day wore on, the strain of pushing the airship into the wind telling on the temperamental machine.

“Sir, flyer incoming. It appears to be a skimmer.”

“Excellent. Confirm their orders, please.”

Another cadet stepped out of the control room onto the deck. Alexandros watched as he used a lantern-powered searchlight to send messages to the flyer. In response, the skimmer’s pilot sent back a stream of flashing light messages.

The cadet jotted down notes as he carefully recorded the skimmer’s reply. The skimmer waggled its wings as it swept around the larger airship before taking position directly before its bow.

“Sir!” the cadet called out, handing him the transcribed message.

Do I have to read everything here? Or have we had the secrecy training drilled so far into our heads we’re afraid to communicate a simple message?
Alexandros grumbled to himself as he grabbed the message and read it. Then blinked several times as he read it again.

“You’re sure?” he asked the cadet.

“I doubled checked the message twice, sir, just like you taught us!”

By the gods… he’s found it!

“Sir?” Ionia inquired.

“Follow that skimmer! Looks like he’s already done our work for us.” The bridge crew cheered. “Let’s go get our missing sheep.”

With the small, dragonfly shape of the skimmer leading the way, the
Arcus
followed in its wake like a bulldog following a small child.

An hour or so later, the
Arcus
floated majestically above a half-moon island. Part of a sailing vessel peeked out from underneath a rock overhang. The flitting skimmer had gone in for closer observation.

“I can’t see any way to retake the ship without dropping part of our crew down there,” Ionia stated glumly.

“Afraid of a few pirates?”

“We don’t know how many there are, sir. It would probably be better to call in the
Lorica
and get her heavy weapons and crew here for support. Plus, I doubt we’re really prepared for any land engagement.”

Alexandros sat back in his command chair, chin on his fist, contemplating.

The door banged open. A crewman barged in.

“Sir! The skimmer is under attack! Someone on the island is shooting at them!”

Alexandros ran to the door, pushing his way past the surprised cadet. He made it to the railing just in time. The skimmer was flying erratically, tiny wisps of smoke escaping from its immobile right wing. It spun, rotating dizzyingly until it crashed into the rocky surface of the island’s eastern peninsula.

“Damnit! Can you tell if the pilot survived?” he asked Ionia, who had thoughtfully carried out the spyglass and had it pressed to his eye.

“Yes, sir. It looks like the pilot is clambering out of the wreckage. He looks okay from here.” He scanned around. “Uh, sir, there are men moving towards the crash site. They are armed.”

Alexandros hesitated a moment, but then made his decision. “First Officer Ionia, contact the
Lorica
and request support. We’ll need it once our men secure a foothold on the island.”

“Sir,” Ionia interrupted. “The
Lorica
is probably a day’s sailing away at least. They probably wouldn’t leave the convoy to begin with. That is not a wise plan. We’d risk the entire ship for the life of one person.”

Alexandros felt his plan beginning to crumble. “Well then, First Officer, find me someone, anyone, able to assist. There must be some imperial assets in this area. Find them now.” He put every ounce of authority into his words, and Ionia snapped to attention.

“Yes, sir!” he practically shouted.

Alexandros shoved his hands into his pockets to hide how hard they were shaking. “And assemble the boarding parties. They should be ready for combat in ten minutes.”

As the cadets scrambled to complete their tasks, Alexandros excused himself to his cabin. He clambered belowdecks, moving about in the lantern-lit gloom of the passageways. Once inside his cabin, the cadet could feel his hands still shaking.

“I can do this,” he said to no one in particular.

He opened his trunk and pulled out his own set of armor. The aircrew armor consisted of a light brigandine chest piece attached to a leather shirt that covered his arms and torso. Metal disks were sewn onto the back to provide additional protection. He dug his helmet out of his trunk as well, its metal dome flaring out in the back to protect his neck, while the twin cheek guard portions rested on the sides of his face. As an officer, he attached the traditional crimson horsehair plume to the helmet before placing it onto his head.

From his weapons rack in the corner he grabbed his scutum, the traditional shield of the Roman legions. Adapted for use on air and naval ships, this scutum was much smaller, being more of an oval buckler than a large shield. His gear prepared, he checked to ensure his sword was still on his belt. His fingers gripped the hilt of the
gladius
, the short stabbing sword unchanged after a millennia of use and perfectly suited to the close confines of boarding combat.

He met his men back on the main deck, the wind whipping at their cloaks and tunics. The warmth of the day provided little respite from the wind, which blew constantly at even their low altitude.

“Are you ready, sir?”

“Yes, indeed, Cadet Officer Porux. You’ll take the second wave, I’ll take the first. You secure the landing site. We will secure the downed pilot and return him to the airship. Keep a sharp eye out. No telling what these pirates or traitors have.”

“Absolutely, sir. We’ve got your back.” Porux also had a crescent plume on his helmet to designate him as a unit leader. He turned and began supervising the assemblage of various light artillery pieces along the railings facing the island.

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