Authors: Morgan Karpiel
Tags: #Historical Fiction
Coming Soon From Morgan Karpiel
Cover art: Adam Soroczynsi
Copyright ©2010 Morgan Karpiel. All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part (beyond that copying permitted by U.S. Copyright Law, Section 107, "fair use" in teaching or research. Section 108, certain library copying permitted by U.S. Copyright Law, Section 107, "fair use" in teaching or research. Section 108, certain library copying, or in published media by reviewers in limited excerpt), without written permission from the publisher.
Published by Tahoe Scientific LLC.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
As ever, I would like to thank the two most supportive people I have ever known, Edward and Jeanne Smith. I would also like to thank Aviator’s editor, Joanna D’Angelo, for her enthusiasm and heroic red pen work. To my family and those friends who have been in my corner through good writing days and bad, brilliant ideas and truly horrible ones, words can never express how wonderful life is, because you’re in the world.
athan shoved the metal hatch open to the storm, pushing out onto the rolling gun deck of the battleship
. Rain battered his shoulders, sweeping in solid crystal sheets across the teak deck as the giant vessel slid into another deep trough. He felt the sickening drop in his stomach, the yawn of ocean waves swallowing the horizon.
shuddered through her massive bulkheads, steel and water colliding before she bounded skyward, riding on clouds of hard spray to the top of another large swell. Nathan slid off his feet with the hard pitch of the deck, forced to cling to the railing to keep from falling, the thick muscle in his arms and shoulders strained. He swore through his teeth, enduring the bite of the cable in his hands.
The ship leveled as it neared the crest of the wave and he heaved himself up, heading for the fantail, the gun deck still tilting under the tread of his boots.
Coming overhead any second, at upward of 150 knots…
He broke into a run, sprinting under the aft starboard battery, its twin 127 millimeter guns staring out to sea, rain spilling in light waterfalls over their long barrels. The shadow of the ship’s massive stacks fell behind him, the cranes and pulleys of the aft station materializing from the slew of water and swirling vapor ahead.
Men in oiled overcoats and leather boots leaned against the deck angle, holding onto their harness lines, swaying with the drop and pitch as they raised the airship docking mast against the angry clouds. The mast lifted upward, anchored on heavy hinges, pulled and secured by six winched cables.
Nathan ducked forward as the ship rolled into another descent, grasping onto the railing around the air mast before
hit the trough. He felt weaker in the drop, as if his grip was a loose and useless thing, his body falling through wet air, stomach rising in his chest.
The LSO turned toward him in surprise, his face shadowed under the floppy brim of his hat. “Mr. Lanchard! You bloody kidget! Captain will ha’our heads if you go a tippin’ over the side. Did no one tell ya what a fat Navy prize ya’ are now? One o’the men will escort ya back.”
“Escort someone else. I can hold my own.”
“With bloody respect, I know you’ve got a strong arm with a line and a wrench, but this is a good team an’ we have all the hands we need.”
“I built the dirigible that’s trying to come in.”
“Aye, sir, we know. And that insane business partner o’ yours is the pilot. Hard to forget all that.”
“The craft is not rated for this wind.”
The man looked at him as if he were an idiot. “Imagine that.”
“I’m staying here.”
Another crew member appeared from the rain, wheezing and breathless, water pouring from his sleeves. He jabbed his finger at the starboard horizon. “Visual at two points off the starboard bow, sir.”
The LSO squinted into the wind, baring his teeth and scowling. “E’re she comes! Look alive, ya stupid sods!”
Nathan looked past him, frozen in horror as a dark shape broke through the churn of clouds over the water. It dropped low on the horizon, losing altitude as it barreled toward them, propellers chewing halos of thick vapor, rain shimmering from its rounded silver nose.
Gilda, of all the stupid things you’ve done…
She was a good pilot, God knew, but this was her first time with the sleek, torpedo-like shuttle, a prototype just 60 meters in length. He’d designed the craft to be fast and light, with a gondola capable of carrying four people and a detachable 1-ton payload compartment. It was an emergency runner, intended to transport vital personnel and supplies between ships in fair weather. It was never meant for this, its airframe too delicate to withstand the force of a gale.
Gilda understood that. Even in her darkest, maddest moments, she had to know this was suicide. He imagined her jockeying the engine throttles and the rudder, straining against the crash harness in her tailored jacket.
She had one shot to hook the mast with the grappling cannon and anchor to
. Just one. And, even if she succeeded, the shuttle would likely shred to pieces on its cable tether before they could bring her down.
He didn’t know—pushed aside, what effect seeing that would have on him. He’d forced himself out into the storm simply to be there, to be
. Maybe because he owed her that much, or because it would be impossible for him to believe it otherwise, he couldn’t be sure. The only thing he could be certain of was the anger, the absolute rage he felt now, its burn all the brighter now for a sudden, involuntary flicker of desperation.
You’d kill yourself like this, after all these years, in the prototype I built with my own hands. You’d risk everything, just to prove a point, to show me that you can. To punish me!
The shuttle loomed larger, emerging from the gray haze with disastrous speed. Before he could react, it was on top of them, charging down the slender, starboard-side railing of the battleship with its lights blazing, its wide silver belly swallowing the sky.
Nathan staggered back as the airship’s gondola tore overhead in a roar of noise and light. Through the glare, he caught a blurred view of a figure in the cabin moving frantically, aware only that she couldn’t fight the wind, couldn’t slow the craft down enough to fire the grappling hook.
He stood terrified, knowing that he was about to lose her, violently and forever. He’d wished the worst on her more times than he could count, only to be made helpless now, desperate to stop time.
The shuttle’s starboard engine suddenly went into full reverse-pitch, with the opposite engine screaming at full power, the rudder hard to port. The airship twisted, slipping right over the fantail of the battleship.
The gondola’s detachable cargo compartment clunked loose and dropped from its anchors. Nathan watched it fall in amazement, the deck crew scattering from its path. He raised his arms, shielding his face as the boxy compartment crashed onto the fantail, its rows of glass windows shattering in the rain. The compartment rocked forward, then settled, its ornate metalwork shining dully in the exterior lights.
Above them, the rest of the airship was already gone, caught by a cold gust of wind. Nathan blinked, watching it tumble away and disintegrate against the dark sky, the airframe breaking into pieces, the outline of the rudder spiraling like a flat rock tossed into the sea.
For second, he couldn’t comprehend it, couldn’t think, but the hard lurch of the
on another swell pulled him back into the moment, into the hurried yelling and movement across the fantail, the detachable cargo compartment now lying on its side in front of him.
“Gilda,” he murmured.
Ducking through the rain, he followed two crewmembers in long coats along what was left of the compartment’s windows. They found the door and Nathan hesitated, standing in place as they forced it open, their silhouettes working in the glow of lights.
He waited as the storm raged around him, the chaos beating in his ears, a trapped breath burning in his chest. Then he saw it, a slip of her blue jacket emerging from the doorway, the glow of blonde curls fallen loose from their pins.
She extended a gloved hand to her rescuers, her smile radiant as she told a weak joke and laughed. Even half-drowned by the wind, it was a beautiful laugh, a rich, feminine sound. The men around her echoed it with relieved laughter of their own. They would remember this moment for the rest of their lives and adore her for it. Their hands were on her now, steadying her, clearing a path, touching a little of her silky light as they protected her from the heavy sway of the
He felt himself go cold, sick with the sight of it. He’d obviously been a fool, falling for another one of her grand shows. She’d never meant to use the grappling hook, never intended to save the shuttle. The plan had been to ride in with the wind and escape using the cargo compartment, abandoning the shuttle, and the last two years of his work, to be ripped apart in the storm, its specially crafted engines sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
Very well done, Gilda. A brilliant performance. Perhaps the best you’ve ever given. You’ve earned your accolades this time. You’ve made your point. Now it’s time for me to make mine.
She glanced up, her delicate expression sobering when she saw him standing there. Her lips parted, on his name perhaps. She managed to look stricken, no longer able to play the part of the fearless heroine, the golden goddess, illusions that still existed for the public but not for them. Not for years. She seemed to lose her bearings, choosing to hold his gaze as she was pressed from one man to the next, urged quickly along the path to safety.
Just when he thought she might call out, her expression hardened, becoming something guarded and resolute as she focused on the hatch ahead. It was opened wide for her, revealing a glowing corridor and a worried looking lieutenant waiting to greet her in dress whites.
Lady Sinclair had arrived.
“She made a pretty mess of your machine, didn’t she, Mr. Lanchard?” The LSO clapped him on the shoulder, his laugh booming above the storm. “No offense, but we’ll be shoving the rest o’er the side as soon as the medical supplies are unpacked. Can’t have that wreckage rollin’ about.”
Nathan swore under his breath.
“Yes, I know,” the LSO quipped, walking into the pouring rain. “She laid waste to ya.”
Hardly the first time.
Nathan glowered at the man’s back, feeling the familiar strain of anger, exhaustion.
But, with luck, it might be the last.
She’d been alarmed, taken off guard. And who could blame her? Her ears still rang from the crash, her ribs stinging with the hard impact, her hands shaking with the lost feel of the throttles. Had he cared? Not in the slightest. He looked furious standing there, his big shoulders silver with rain, his dark hair freed from its knot, his cold expression glossed with water and light. Of course, he would be furious. But what could he say? Nothing. The medicine she had brought on the shuttle was desperately needed and would save wounded men, soldiers even now at the mercy of the
That was certainly a lofty achievement.
And the fact that her arrival had suddenly spoiled his ability to meet privately with the Navy’s top notch—well, that was just what he deserved.
Gilda felt a delicious glow of pleasure in that.
You think you have the right to do whatever you like, don’t you, Nate? Well, you asked for this lesson, didn’t you? We’re still partners and there’s not a damn thing you can do without my permission, nothing you can keep secret from me.
She followed Lieutenant Something-or-other, a kind man with round face, down an endless corridor choked with pipes and steam release valves, heading for the compartment that had been prepared for her. The Lieutenant somehow walked counter to the sway of the ship, so that whatever the dreadful tilt, his rather pudgy frame stood angled in exact opposite, keeping him neatly in the center of things.
Gilda, on the other hand, swaggered like a drunk and considered swearing like one too. Sea ships were God-awful beasts, and battleships the worst of the lot. “You’d think they’d run out of gray paint, eventually.”
“Pardon me?” The Lieutenant looked back at her.
She’d interrupted him, she realized. He’d been babbling on about all the little round-faced juniors back on the farm. “You must miss them terribly. I can’t imagine.”
“It does get tough. But I’m needed here. There’s talk of a new strike from the Sultans. They’ve sent a few Dreadnaughts and striker teams into these waters. They mean to take control of the islands, perhaps.”
“Well, that is what we are here to prevent.”
The Lieutenant wiped his forehead with his palm, his expression acquiring a misty look of appreciation. “You’re a brave woman, your ladyship. I find it amazing you handle those airships the way you do. I know your father as much as created the business, but it’s still very brave. I hope you don’t mind that I say it like that.”
“It’s certainly been said before, in ways I liked much less.”
He looked at her. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“And why should you? You are a gentleman, I can see that.”
He shook his head, confused.
“Is it far?” she asked.
“Ah, yes. My cabin.”
“No. No, it’s right here.” He pointed to the third horrible gray door on the left. “It’s for visiting Heads of State, ambassadors and such. Very comfortable. The Duke of Sutton is next door, as he was sent by Parliament to assess the dreadnaught situation.”
“The Duke? Next door? How fortunate.”
“And your business partner, Mr. Lanchard, is down the corridor.”
“How very cozy.”
The Lieutenant crossed to her door and opened it for her, proudly revealing a pillbox of gray walls, pipes and cable trays, a terrible little metal toilet, and a narrow bed that only a man or a dog could sleep on.
“Perfect,” she smiled.