The aeronauts windlass, p.14
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.14
 

           Jim Butcher

  There were the sounds of more movement in the darkness, scuffling noises, blows struck—and then a short, sharp gasp.

  Bridget.

  God in Heaven, in the frantic moment of danger, Gwen had forgotten about their companion.

  “Stop, Albion!” snarled a voice in a heavy accent. “Or the girl dies.”

  Light rose again, this time from one of the intruders, holding up an illumination crystal. Four forms lay on the ground, utterly still, and as she blinked her eyes, struggling to peer into the new illumination, she saw Benedict holding a fifth man by the throat all but entirely suspended from the ground, with his boots barely resting on the floor. There was blood on her cousin’s hands and splattered across his naked chest.

  The invaders holding the stretcher had dropped it. There was not a casualty beneath its blankets—instead it had been stacked with leather satchels set with fuses. They’d had only a brief introduction to the devices in their munitions lectures, but Gwen knew enough to recognize a military-grade explosive charge when she saw it.

  Only a few feet to her right, one of the invaders stood behind Bridget. He held her throat in one hand, and with the other had trapped one of her arms behind her. Fresh burn marks on his uniform at one shoulder suggested that the second blast of Gwen’s gauntlet had found a target.

  Bridget’s eyes were wide and furious, her neck bent at an angle that suggested she was in pain. Her captor stared at Benedict over Bridget’s head, the light of the crystal gleaming off of his feline eyes.

  “Put him down,” growled the enemy warriorborn.

  Benedict bared his teeth, but her cousin released the fifth man, who slid to the floor like so much limp vattery meat, and let out a low groan. Gwen took time to note that the remaining invaders were now spread out, the nearest two kneeling so that those standing behind them had a clear field of fire. All of them held gauntlets aimed and ready—several of them pointing directly at Gwen. She, unfortunately, did not have her own gauntlet aimed at them—and she rather thought that if she moved her left arm at all, she’d never know it when they fired.

  “Three men in three seconds,” the Auroran said to Benedict in a low, flat tone. “Not terrible. But I’d have taken you if the little girl hadn’t gotten lucky with the second shot.”

  Benedict lifted his left hand, his gauntlet’s crystal smoldering with light.

  The Auroran smiled very slightly and drew Bridget a little more fully between himself and Benedict. “How sure are you of your aim, Albion? Fire and my men will kill you and your little girl. And once you’re dead, I’ll kill this one and move on.”

  “Shoot him, Benedict,” Bridget grated. “He smells. I would rather—”

  The Auroran flexed his fingers slightly, and Bridget’s words abruptly ceased. He put his lips close to her ear and said, “The men are talking.”

  “If I stand down,” Benedict said, “you’ll kill her anyway. What reason do I have not to at least take you with us?”

  “My word,” the Auroran said. “You go down. That’s how it is. But you can save them. Stand down and I’ll tie these others up and leave them unharmed.”

  Benedict stared at the other warriorborn for a silent moment. Then he said, “Give me your name.”

  The Auroran inclined his head. “Diego Ciriaco, master sergeant, First Auroran Marines.”

  “Benedict Sorellin, Spirearch’s Guard,” Gwen’s cousin said.

  “Benedict Sorellin,” Ciriaco said, “you have my word.”

  “Remember my name,” Benedict said.

  And then he lowered his gauntlet, an oddly calm expression on his face.

  “Will,” the Auroran told him. Then he turned to his fellow Aurorans and said, “You will fire on my command.”

  Gwen abruptly realized that while her gauntlet was not pointed at any of the armed men facing them, it was pointed at something else.

  “You will not,” she snapped in a sudden cold tone, doing everything she could to copy her mother’s furious, imperious voice of command, the one she used only on special occasions. “If anyone fires or harms any of us, I swear to God in Heaven that I will discharge my gauntlet into your explosives. It would not be the end I had hoped for, but it will be quick, and if I die defending Albion from Auroran invaders I should not count my life wasted. Can you say as much, Mister Ciriaco? Can your companions?”

  There was a moment of utter, crystalline silence.

  Then Ciriaco let out a low hiss and snarled, “Hold fire.”

  Benedict’s teeth shone in a hard smile. “In that case, sir, perhaps I could offer to accept your surrender. My terms will be a great deal more generous than those you offered me. Release the young lady, lay down your arms, and you will be taken as prisoners of war.”

  Ciriaco snorted. “Only to be tortured for information by your masters? I prefer the explosion, sir.”

  “Then we are at an impasse.”

  Ciriaco grunted an acknowledgment. “True enough. But that balance will inevitably change. Someone will be along.”

  “I assure you, sir,” Gwen said, “I will have no compunctions whatever about blowing up any number of your fellows who might have the appallingly bad taste to interrupt us.”

  The warriorborn stared at her, his face unreadable. “Conversely, miss, if more of your own people appear, your threat seems rather diminished. How many of your own folk are you willing to kill along with all of us?”

  “Even in a draw, the advantage is mine,” Gwen said. “While I keep you pinned here, you cannot complete whatever objective it is that you have been given. You do not hold a winning hand.”

  He showed his teeth. “Yet. How long, do you think, before your people sort out enough of this mess to send armed patrols through the side tunnels? Hours? A day?” He nodded toward the unconscious form of Barnabus Astor. “How long does your wounded man have before he succumbs? I know when to expect my people. And I know that they’ll be armed. It shouldn’t surprise me at all if in the next moment, a long gunner shot you dead from far down the tunnel and out of your sight before you even realized the danger. Time is on my side, miss, not yours.”

  Gwen felt a cold sensation in the pit of her stomach.

  “Surrender,” Ciriaco said in a hard voice. “Save who you can.” He eyed Benedict. “Surely you see. Tell her.”

  “To the best of my knowledge, sir,” Benedict said in an apologetic tone, “no one has ever been able to tell my dear cousin anything. At all.”

  The Auroran’s expression darkened as he turned back to Gwen. “There is no path to victory for you here.”

  She showed him her teeth. “Yet,” she said with a certain vicious satisfaction. “We shall all, I think, wait and see.”

  Chapter Fourteen

  Spire Albion, Habble Morning

  Grimm hated personal combat.

  Aboard an airship, combat was a tide, a storm, a force of nature. Men died, yes, and it was horrible and it haunted him—but they died at the mercy of forces so powerful that it hardly seemed a merely human agency could be involved. Most often one never saw the face of the enemy, only his ship, hanging like a model in the sky, often looking quite serene and beautiful.

  That was an illusion, of course. Pain and death were the reality. But battle was a distant thing in airships. Detached. Clinical. One pitted one’s mind and skill and the heart of one’s crew against another captain doing precisely the same thing. One saw what the enemy did to one’s own ship, but only rarely did one have a clear, horrible view of what one had perpetrated upon the enemy. Most important, a good commander could make decisions that protected his crew and brought them victory, the ship moving at his will like a single, enormous living being.

  Personal combat was a very different world.

  Kettle returned with the majority of the crew within moments, and Mister Journeyman was waiting to issue weapons and tunics lined with ethersilk. The tunics were old, the silk harvested a generation ago at the very latest, and they would be of use only against an indi
rect blast from moderate range—but they were the best Grimm had been able to find for his men, and they were a great deal better than no armor at all.

  “We’re ready, Captain,” Creedy said. The large young man had donned his sword and gauntlet. “Where should we go?”

  “Where there is need,” Grimm said. “It stands to reason that . . .” He paused as Kettle approached with his sword, its sheath lashed to a baldric. It took a bit of consideration to settle the belt across Grimm’s chest so that his sling wouldn’t tangle in it, and so his unwounded right arm would be able to draw the weapon.

  “Captain,” Creedy said. “What are you doing?”

  “I’m not about to send the crew somewhere I’m not willing to go, XO,” Grimm replied. “Thank you, Mister Kettle.”

  “Captain,” Kettle said. “Your gauntlet?”

  Grimm wiggled his left arm in its sling and sighed. “I could scarcely aim the thing, I’m afraid.”

  “Captain,” Creedy said. “You’re wounded. You shouldn’t go.”

  “Nonsense,” Grimm replied.

  Creedy ground his teeth. Then he turned to Kettle. “Mister Kettle?”

  “Sir?” Kettle asked. There was, Grimm thought, a certain amount of skepticism in the honorific.

  “As our dear captain is determined to put himself in unnecessary danger, I am tasking you with the personal responsibility of watching over him. I don’t want you more than a step away from him until this is settled. Clear?”

  Kettle’s expression relaxed, and for a second something almost like a smile graced it. “Crystal, sir.”

  “Bah,” Grimm said. “I could order you not to do so, you know.”

  “What’s that, sir?” Kettle asked in an overloud voice. “I couldn’t quite hear you. My ears, the explosions, you see, sir.”

  Grimm eyed him, but Kettle remained amiably, apologetically deaf. Creedy’s expression was set into a stubborn frown. Grimm looked around and noted other crewmen observing the exchange, and sighed. “Fine, fine.” He gave them both an irritated glare, but his heart wasn’t really in it. “As I was saying, it stands to reason that the boarders won’t attempt to land on the Spire’s roof in the shipyard. There are Marines here on duty, batteries, ships, crews. Had they intended an open assault, they’d have landed already.”

  “Where, then?” Creedy asked. “Do you think they’re headed for Landing?”

  A fair question. The enterprising inhabitants of Habble Landing had spent a generation investing in wearing a hole in the Spirestone outer wall of their habble, and then constructed an airship port of their own, out of wood, on the exterior wall of their level of the Spire. Where before there had been only two entrances to Spire Albion, the roof and the base, there were now three. Transport times of goods throughout the many habbles of Spire Albion could be cut in half, and the craftsmen and merchants of the Spire had been swift to take advantage of such an opportunity—and now Landing possessed nearly as much wealth as Morning.

  “Perhaps,” Grimm said. “But even there, they’d have a real fight on their hands to get in. I believe they’ll go in another way.”

  “The ventilation tunnels?”

  “Precisely. They’ll get as many of their Marines into the tunnels as they can and set them about the business of weakening Albion from within.”

  Kettle whistled through his teeth. “The mouths to those tunnels aren’t but maybe four feet by four, and right on the side of the Spire. No ledges or nothing, Captain. Hell of a difficult target for a Marine flying a parasail.”

  Grimm started walking toward the gangplank. “Industry and determination, Mister Kettle, can transform the difficult into the routine,” Grimm said. “We can assume they’ll move from the ventilation tunnels into the side tunnels, and from there proceed to their objectives. There are a number of possible targets for them to assault within Habble Morning, and they may try for the shipyards as well. Our mission is to keep them bottled up in the side tunnels. We needn’t hunt them down—I daresay our own Marines will be happy to do it once they return.”

  Grimm looked over his shoulder and saw his crew following him, some of them still buckling their swords and gauntlets into place.

  Kettle had found most of them in a remarkably short time— eighty-seven men, only nine short of her full complement. It seemed they had all been together, and rather nearby, to place their bets on that duel.

  How many, Grimm wondered, would still be alive when the sun set?

  “Mister Creedy, pass the word to the officers, if you please. Make sure every single one of them understands our goal and that I expect it to be met regardless of what happens to the officers or myself. They are to inform the men in their squad the same way.”

  “Aye, Captain,” Creedy said, and immediately turned to begin walking backward, speaking in terse tones to the first of the crewmen behind them.

  “Mister Journeyman,” Grimm called, without turning his head.

  “Aye, Captain?”

  “You stay.”

  An incredulous, absolutely acidic epithet split the air.

  “I believe the phrase you used was ‘jumped-up wollypog’? If you are too valuable to show proper deference and courtesy to my XO, you are certainly too valuable to risk in a firefight with Auroran Marines, Journeyman. That’s how it is.”

  The engineer’s ongoing curses faded into the background as Grimm began to trot forward, and his men came with him.

  They descended a spiral ramp that led from the shipyard to Habble Morning, fighting against confused traffic heading in the opposite direction. The habble was in chaos.

  The bombardment from the Auroran destroyers had not struck the habble directly, but enough of the energy had transferred through the Spirestone to dislodge a significant amount of masonry used to buttress and repair the Spire’s roof. There were screams and the scent of smoke on the air. That was terrifying. If an enemy was lurking, he could be fought—but if smoke began to fill the habble or its tunnels, it could kill every one of his men without a blade being drawn or a gauntlet discharged.

  Members of the Spirearch’s Guard rushed here and there, rescuing those who had been trapped in the rubble or tending to the injuries of the wounded. It was a dutiful reaction to the crisis, but not a wellordered one. They moved in small groups of three or four, with no obvious coordination. No one was attempting to direct or calm the traffic on the atrium’s streets, as far as Grimm could tell.

  “Sir!” Creedy said, pointing.

  Grimm swiveled his gaze to the far side of the habble—where flickers of brilliant white light played intermittently against the far wall, changing the buildings between into black outlines.

  “Firefight,” Grimm said. “Good eyes, XO. Shall we greet our guests?” Without waiting for an answer, he set out at a rather slow if steady lope. His arm hurt abominably, but there was nothing for it. Habble Morning occupied the entirety of the Spire, most of it beneath a vast atrium nearly two hundred feet high, and it was the next-best thing to two miles from one side of the great cylinder that was Spire Albion to the other. They had to hurry, but arrive with enough breath to aim steadily and ply their blades.

  The run was like some kind of appalling dream. Most of the buildings seemed little damaged, but occasionally one would appear that had been crushed by falling masonry. The wounded lay on the Spirestone floor or wandered dazed through the streets. Grimm ground his teeth against the need to stop and help a small child who had obviously suffered a broken arm. The poor waif was in agony, but not in danger— which might not be true if the invaders managed to set enough of Habble Morning on fire, or blow up vatteries or water gardens, or murder the Spire Council—though Grimm had mixed feelings on the sort of loss that might constitute—or any of a number of other acts of war that could have been under way.

  Perhaps a quarter of an hour passed while they ran—an eternity during any battle. By the time they reached the spot Creedy had seen, Grim had assumed that it would most likely be over. He was mistaken. As
they approached, they could hear the howling discharges of gauntlet fire.

  Grimm came to a panting halt just around the corner of a large house, one of the original dwellings from the Building, made of Spirestone seamlessly fixed to the habble’s floor. The firing came from the other side.

  “Stern,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady and calm. “Get a look; come back quick, no dawdling.”

  “Captain,” said a slender, dark-haired man a good many years younger than the average crew member of the Predator. Stern had been a grubby midshipman in the deployment that had ended Grimm’s career, and had (against Grimm’s express instructions) followed him from the Fleet onto Predator. He had remained small and thin as he grew into an adult, and could move as quickly and quietly as any warriorborn when he needed to do so.

  Creedy was blowing hard after the run, his face red. “Captain,” he gasped. “Are we where I think we are?”

  “Lancaster Vatteries,” Grimm said. “They’ve come for the crystals.”

  “God in Heaven. If the Aurorans destroy them . . .”

  “Then Fleet will have to fight a war without replacement crystals or additional vessels,” Grim said.

  Which was, he reflected, saying something very nearly the same as “losing a war.”

  Stern came hurrying back to the group. “The vattery is made of Spirestone,” he reported, “so there’s no blasting a way in. Lancaster retainers are holding the door so far, but there aren’t enough of them to keep it much longer.”

  “And the enemy?” Grimm asked.

  “Captain,” Stern said, his voice worried. “They’re the Spirearch’s Guards.”

  “Nonsense,” Grimm said promptly. “Likely they’re Aurorans wearing false uniforms. How many?”

  “I made it two dozen—but they’ve taken up positions, sir. They’re shooting from cover.”

  Creedy blinked. “What? If they want to destroy the vattery, they should be storming the door. Shouldn’t they? Every minute they’re here makes it more likely that they’ll come under attack themselves. Why wait?”

  “Mmmm,” Grimm said, and narrowed his eyes, thinking. “Why wait?” Then he felt his lips bare his teeth in a smile. “Why indeed. Because they are waiting. Perhaps they’re expecting reinforcements. Stern, where are they positioned?”