The aeronauts windlass, p.53
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       The Aeronaut's Windlass, p.53
 

           Jim Butcher

  “Button me up, if you would, Major?”

  “It would be my pleasure,” Espira said, stepping forward. “It had best not be,” Cavendish said in a poisonously sweet tone.

  Espira felt his spine go rigid. He forced himself to inhale and exhale deeply. Then he went about fastening up a score of buttons on the back of Cavendish’s gown with quick, efficient motions.

  A few moments later they both sat back down at the table for the tea Madame Cavendish prepared. As she poured, the dismal grey light of the mists outside shifted and grew brighter. The grey of the mezzosphere gave way to the cerulean blue of the aerosphere as the ship emerged into open sky.

  A moment after that, the door opened abruptly and Calliope Ransom strode into the cabin.

  Mistshark’s lean captain had a vulpine air about her, and her green eyes flickered with raw anger. Her dark aeronaut’s leathers were worn and of excellent quality, as were the blade at her side, the gauntlet on her hand—and a trio of pistols, slung one after another on her belt.

  “Good morning, Captain,” Cavendish said in a pleasant tone. “Will you join us for tea?”

  “No. Thank you.” Ransom stared hard at Espira for a moment, her eyes calculating. Then she nodded a few times and said, “This is my ship. And while you are valued customers, you are guests on my vessel, and by God in Heaven you will comport yourselves as such.”

  “Or what follows?” Cavendish asked in a gentle tone.

  “You leave the ship,” Captain Ransom said simply.

  “Do you mean to force me over the rail, Captain?”

  “No need,” Ransom replied. “Santos has already opened the cargo doors in the hold below this cabin, including the one on the exterior ventral hull.” She tapped a toe on the wooden deck. “Beneath this deck there is nothing but sky—and the explosive charges that will shatter this floor and send everything in the cabin tumbling down into the mist, along with you, your creepy attaché, and this sorry son of a bitch from Aurora.”

  Cavendish tilted her head sharply. “Excuse me?”

  “If I don’t come out of this cabin within the next ten minutes, Santos sets off the charges. If I emerge from this cabin acting odd or out of character, he sets off the charges. If he so much as gets a bad feeling that you’re up to something, he has orders to set off the charges and kill you all.”

  Silence grew in the room. Espira cleared his throat. “I believe you are bluffing, Captain Ransom.”

  The captain’s sharp smile grew sharper. “Am I?”

  “I wonder,” Cavendish mused aloud, “if you are truly the kind of person who would rig her guest quarters to murder her guests should they become inconvenient.”

  Captain Ransom cocked an eyebrow. “I wonder if you are the sort of person who would make an extremely foolish threat simply to get her extremely busy host’s attention.”

  “Touché,” Cavendish murmured. “Could you not have taken a moment to speak to me? It does seem polite.”

  “Polite is lovely for tea parties,” Ransom replied. “It is of limited value when one is attempting to outrun the fastest and best-trained airship fleet the world has ever known.” She looked at each of them. “A fact you should consider when calculating whether or not you should attempt to take my ship. You might take her, but you won’t take her whole—and all of Albion will be on your heels in hours, if they are not there already.”

  “Meaning?” Espira asked.

  “Meaning that your Marines aren’t aeronauts. They can’t sail like aeronauts, they can’t think like aeronauts, and they can’t manage the ship as well as aeronauts—and that goes double for whoever you put in charge of them. If you kill me and take my ship, you’re never going to get back to Spire Aurora alive. The Albions will catch you and kill you. It’s as simple as that.”

  Cavendish’s mouth spread into a wide smile, one that looked eerily out of place on her features. “I believe I can respect you, Captain,” she said. She stared at Ransom with thesmile fixed in place, took a slow sip of tea, and then said, “The ship has slowed.”

  Ransom’s brow furrowed. She kept her features composed, but Espira had the impression that she was nearly as unnerved by Cavendish as he was. “How could you possibly know that?”

  “Am I right?”

  “You are,” Ransom said.

  “Why?”

  “Corrosion in the Haslett cage, my engineer says,” the captain replied. She cast an aggravated glance toward the stern of the ship. “It’s causing irregular power flow. We had to back off on the throttle or risk blowing out runs and relays.”

  “Can it be corrected?” Cavendish asked.

  “Not without taking the core offline to scour the Haslett cage,” Ransom said. “We would be forced to rely on wind-powered sails until the cage could be cleaned and reassembled. We can run at eighty-five percent, or we can stop using the web entirely and trust in the wind.”

  “And why do we not do that?”

  Espira managed to keep from wincing. Cavendish might be fiendishly clever and dangerous, but the question betrayed a vast ignorance of aeronautics.

  Ransom managed to answer as though the question had not sounded like one coming from a curious child. “Wind-powered sails are efficient, since they cost no energy consumption from the power core, but they lack the maneuverability offered by an etheric web,” she said. “A ship running under wind-powered sails makes its best speed amongst only a limited arc of possible directions, and can be easily outmaneuvered by a powered ship. And if you don’t have a good strong wind, a web-driven ship will outrun a wind-powered ship.”

  “You’re saying that relying upon the sails creates too many variables,” Cavendish said thoughtfully.

  “I’m saying that it dispenses with too many options,” Ransom replied. “If we disassemble the Haslett cage, all we have are the sails. No web, no shroud, no weapons. If the Fleet sighted us, we could do nothing but run, and if the wind was not favorable we would be rapidly destroyed. Once we reach the rendezvous, we can repair the cage.”

  “Why then?”

  “Because we’ll have an escort to screen for us should a Fleet ship find us,” she said. “We’ll be able to sail down into the mist while the escort engages the enemy.” She arched an eyebrow. “This little lesson in aeronautics has cost this ship in terms of efficiency, because I was here answering your questions instead of doing everything I possibly could to keep us all alive. Enjoy your tea, madame. If I can avoid any further interruptions, this should be over soon.”

  Cavendish set the teacup and saucer down carefully. “I’m not sure I like your tone, Captain.”

  Captain Ransom put her right fist on her hip. “This is my ship, madame,” she said. “Consequently, I’m the one who makes decisions about tone here. Do us all a favor: Drink your tea like a good trog and stop interfering with professionals.”

  Cavendish’s eyes flashed with a spark of heat, echoed by the kindling of what looked like a tiny star in the crimson crystal at her throat.

  Espira grimaced. He put down his teacup and shifted his weight slightly in his seat, so that he could throw himself rapidly to the floor should violence erupt.

  “You are ill-mannered, Captain,” Madame Cavendish said.

  Ransom smirked. “Feel free to leave my ship whenever you wish, you arrogant bi—”

  And just then a bell began to ring at frantic pace.

  “General quarters!” boomed the enormous executive officer’s voice, out on the ship’s deck.

  Ransom spat a foul curse and flung herself at the cabin’s door. Just as she opened it, there was a howl of discharges from a broadside of etheric cannon, an enormous flash of light, and a sound like thousands of dry bones snapping.

  “Strap in!” Espira shouted to Cavendish, even as he rose and rushed after Captain Ransom.

  He dashed out onto the deck in time to see Mistshark’s entire starboard etheric web shot away from the ship. It was on fire, adrift and falling with lazy grace back toward the mist of the mez
zosphere. The ship lurched, its drag suddenly unbalanced, its stern slewing to port as its bow rotated in the direction of the missing web.

  There was a rushing sound, and scarcely five hundred yards away a lean, sleek airship flying Albion’s scarlet, azure and white colors sailed up into view from beneath the Mistshark with seemingly effortless speed and grace. The name on the prow declared her the AMS Predator.

  Espira clenched his teeth. Skippers in the Auroran Armada and merchant fleet alike spoke of the privateer ship in hushed, angry tones. Predator had been singlehandedly responsible for nearly a quarter of Spire Aurora’s merchant losses in the two years leading up to this war.

  Before he could finish the thought, Predator’s guns howled again, this time firing overhead, snipping off Mistshark’s dorsal web as neatly as a seamstress with her shears. This time the web came slithering down onto the ship, burning, sparks flying off it with miniature lightning snaps of discharging static electricity whenever it touched nonwooden material.

  Such as the Mistshark’s crew.

  Espira looked up and saw burning web falling directly toward him. He seized Captain Ransom by the belt and pulled her back into the doorway of the cabin an instant before the web reached her. It struck the metal doorknob instead, sparking a bright flash of light that left a scorch mark on the metal. Even as the web settled, Mistshark became further unbalanced, her nose rising. Espira automatically snapped a pair of safety lines onto a pair of nearby hooks, in time to use their support to keep from being rocked off his feet from the ship’s wallowing.

  “Dammit, how?” Captain Ransom snarled as the web piled down atop her ship, hundreds of feet long, and a nearly equal amount across. The deck was rapidly beginning to look like the inside of a silkweaver nest.

  She snapped her goggles down over her eyes. “Santos!” she bellowed. “Signal rockets now! Keep them going!”

  “Aye!” boomed the executive officer. A second later there was a rushing sound, and a comet trailing a blazing trail of fire lifted into the sky.

  “Firefighting party to the deck!” she shouted.

  “Aye, Skipper!”

  “Guns, fire at will!”

  Seconds later, ten etheric cannon opened fire on Predator—but the lean ship had already altered its course and abruptly dropped lower, evading the broadside and plunging back into the mists below. Just before it did, there was a rushing sound, and rockets raced out from Predator, exploding a thousand yards overhead into a thick, dense cloud of yellow smoke.

  Ransom stared after the vanishing ship, her eyes narrowed in thought. Then she nodded and shouted, “Pilot, course change, twenty degrees west!”

  “Twenty degrees west, aye!”

  “Full speed ahead! Everything you’ve got!”

  A second pair of Mistshark’s blazing signal rockets raced up into the blue sky.

  “Aye, Skipper!”

  The ship groaned as it banked and accelerated, wobbling like a drunkard. A wooden keg that had not been properly secured bounced across the steeply angled deck and tumbled over the side of the ship into the abyss below.

  “Is this wise, Captain?” Espira asked quietly.

  “No,” Ransom replied bluntly. “Goggles.”

  Espira nodded and secured his eye protection, while Ransom drew her blade and began hacking at the ethersilk webbing blocking her passage to the deck.

  “We can’t force him to fight with half our web shot away,” she said. “We’re too slow on our feet now. If we try it, he’ll outmaneuver us and take out the rest of our web within minutes, or work the angles to position himself at weak points in our fields of fire and hammer through our shroud. His ship is lighter and faster, so we can’t outdive him or escape into the mist, lamed as we are. Our only chance is to get to our escort before Captain Grimm turns us into a barge.”

  Espira drew his sword and began hacking away at the ethersilk as soon as Ransom had progressed enough to give him room to swing it. She glanced at him and nodded silent approval.

  “Captain Grimm,” Espira said. “There are a lot of people in Aurora who are coming to despise the man.”

  Ransom bared her teeth, her eyes glittering as another pair of her ship’s rockets raced out above and behind them. “And to think, they weren’t even married to him.”

  Chapter Sixty-six

  AMS Predator

  Excellent shooting, Mister Creedy!” Grimm called out to the port-side gun crews. The shots hadn’t been difficult given the total surprise they’d attained on Mistshark, but fully half of Calliope’s web had been shot away, and at this point victory was only a matter of proper doctrine and intelligent maneuver. “Mister Kettle, stabilize us, if you please.”

  Kettle nodded, already trimming the ship, bringing her level again after their dive into the mist to evade Mistshark’s hurried reply. “ ’Bout there should do it, Skip,” Kettle said.

  Grimm nodded and turned to the gun crews. “XO,” he called, “transfer the crews to the starboard battery!”

  “You heard him, boys,” Creedy called. “Secure your guns, unhook, and get to the other side!”

  Predator’s aeronauts leapt to obey, locking down the port-side guns again and crossing the ship to the bank of weapons on the opposite side. Grimm clenched his jaw. Casualties among his crew had been severe. He had only enough crews to man one bank of guns—but there was no sense in letting Calliope know that. Should she work out that he could project force from only one side of Predator at a time, she could complicate matters enormously.

  “Captain!” called an aeronaut from the deck behind and below him.

  Grimm turned to find Mister Eubanks, a stout, florid veteran with a bristling beard, waiting for him. “Report.”

  “We just fired the last of the signal rockets, Skip.”

  “Very good. You and your crew stand by for damage control.”

  “Damage control, aye,” Eubanks said, and hurried back down the deck again.

  “She’s banking, Skip,” Kettle noted, peering up at the red star still suspended in Predator’s shroud. It had begun to track more sharply to the west. Calliope was hoping to open some distance between her ship and Predator while Grimm was temporarily blinded by the mists.

  “Adjust course, Mister Kettle,” Grimm said.

  Kettle grunted and did so, as Predator maneuvered to ascend from the mist beneath Mistshark, this time on her other flank, and finish the job of laming her. Calliope had no way of knowing that Predator could see her.

  “Something wrong, Skip?”

  Grimm shook his head once. “No. But it hardly seems fair, does it.”

  “No, it does not, Skipper. It certainly does not.” Kettle’s face split into an evil grin. “Ain’t it grand? Where can we get us one of those etherealists?”

  “Let us survive the day first, and consider such matters later,” Grimm said. “Once we’re in position, we’ll use the same approach as last time. But once we’ve fired, we’ll accelerate our ascension to get above their guns’ elevation instead of diving under them.”

  “That wasn’t hardly a dive,” Kettle pointed out.

  “We don’t dare try any more than that,” Grimm said. “Journeyman says the power runs are barely holding together as it is. If we put the strain of a full dive on the ship, we could lose them entirely.”

  It would, Grimm thought, be a horrible surprise to find out, middive, that your ship had suddenly lost the ability to stop diving.

  “Attack run and evasive ascension on your order, aye,” Kettle said. There was a sharp whistle. The pilot turned his head toward the starboard gunnery deck, and nodded. “XO reports guns are ready to fire, Skip.”

  “Very good,” Grimm said, “stand by.”

  “You think Mistshark will surrender once we’ve lamed her?” Kettle asked. “She’s got a good many fighting men on board.”

  A pulse of hot anger touched Grimm’s chest. “They will surrender, Mister Kettle,” he said crisply, “or so help me God in Heaven, I will scatter that ship a
cross continents.”

  Kettle glanced aside at him, and Grimm saw the pilot shift his feet uneasily. Kettle lowered his voice, and his tone was cautious, concerned. “Don’t get me wrong, Captain. After what Mistshark did to that shipyard, I’m more ready than ever to blow her clean out of the aerosphere. But would you really do that . . . ?”

  . . . to Calliope, Kettle’s tone said, though he did not finish the sentence aloud. Grimm felt something twist and writhe inside him, a halfhysterical laugh that threatened to escape his lips. He hammered it down ruthlessly. “Only if she gives me no other choice.” He tried to offer Kettle a reassuring glance. “She is who she is. Do you really think she’s become a loyal soldier to the cause of Spire Aurora?”

  Kettle snorted. “Point. She’ll yield. Unless the Aurorans don’t let her.”

  “We are at war,” Grimm said quietly. “I will do what I must.”

  Grimm closed his eyes for a moment and took a slow breath, trying to get a sense of the ship around him. He gauged the wind, felt the slight tilt in her deck of the weight of half her crew overloading the starboard side. He felt the quivering hum of her core crystal, a barely perceptible buzz through the soles of his boots. It was, of course, a romantic fancy that he almost felt he could hear the same subtle hum of power coming from the capacitors of the cannon on the starboard gun deck—but nonetheless his instincts confirmed what his intellect had already told him to be true.

  Predator was ready.

  “Sound maneuvers!” Grimm called, and the aeronaut manning the ship’s bell began beating out the proper rhythm to warn the crew to secure themselves. “Stand by, gunners!”

  “Gunners ready, Captain!” Creedy called.

  Grimm double-checked his safety lines and snugged them tight. “Mister Kettle,” he said. “Commence attack.”

  P redator shot up through the misty mezzosphere with the effortless grace of a cloudfin and the speed of a signal rocket. The acceleration in the ascension, driven by the enormous power of the new lift crystal, was at least as great as that the ship experienced in a dive. Grimm had to keep a firm grip on the railing of the bridge or risk being driven to his knees as the ship began to quiver and rattle—and then she began to sing.