Dreadnought Page 10

The captain rejoined them before anyone could comment further, and he led the first mate back to the cockpit while urging everyone else to be seated. He must’ve heard something of their conversation himself, for as he got situated he said, “It seems as if you’ve heard about the movement in the front. I want you all to know, it’s to be expected, and it’s something we deal with regularly. There’s nothing to be concerned about, for I’ve got the freshest of all possible coordinates right here.” He indicated a slip of paper covered in dots, dashes, and someone’s handwriting. “We’ll leave within the next five minutes and have you all safely in Fort Chattanooga within a few hours.”

With that, he donned an aviator’s hat and a pair of goggles that were largely for show. He waved at the two crew members who’d latched themselves against the back wall, signaled to the passengers that the ship was ready to disengage, and flashed a big thumbs-​up before smiling and taking the controls.


The next leg of the journey took them over low mountains—crushed green and brown hills, brittle and dry with the season, revealing crags, cliffs, waterfalls, and enormous rocks. Toward evening, Mercy could pick out fires between the trees and on the intermittent peak. She wondered what they might be—troops or travelers or homesteaders—until the captain clarified through his overly loud speaking tube.

“Down below us—oh! There’s one, just to the right. You see those little sparks? Those fires that look so tiny from our prodigious height?”

The passengers mumbled assent.

He said, “ ’Shiners, the lot of them. They do their distillations in the evening, and in the rural parts between the county lines, where they aren’t likely to be bothered.”

“Their distillations?” asked Mr. Rand.

The old lady spoke up. “Busthead. Red-​eye. Mountain dew. They’re brewing alcohol, Mr. Rand,” she informed him, and likewise informed the group that there might be more to her sophisticated-​looking soul than they’d previously assumed. “The South would like to tax it for revenue, but the folks who produce it often lack any other source of income; so I trust you can see the difficulty.”

“Absolutely,” Mr. Rand nearly purred. “Though I don’t suppose the CSA has the time or resources to devote to pursuing bootleggers.”

This time it was the clubfooted lad who contributed. “The local authorities—sheriffs, policemen, constables, or however the cities and townships are organized—they’re given leave by the capital in Danville to pursue the moonshiners at a personal profit, provided they collect the unpaid taxes. It’s been compared to privateering, and is approximately as popular as that old practice.” He sounded as if he were reciting some passage of a newspaper’s article, or a textbook’s chapter.

Gordon Rand smiled. “Which is to say, both very popular, and very dangerous, to both sides of the law. Yes, I understand.”

Mercy seethed a moment, then told him—and, by proxy, the rest of the passengers, “You know, not everyone does it to dodge the law. Some folks brew up batches for reasons of their own, and you might as well tax the chickens for making eggs as try to shake folks down for the pennies they might or might not earn.” Then, because everyone was looking at her strangely, she added, “Yes, my father brews up a barrel or two, every so often. Ain’t nobody’s business if he does.”

She straightened in her seat and fluffed up her smaller bag, preparing to use it as a pillow. She jammed it between her shoulder and the increasingly chilly window.

The student named Dennis said to the one named Larsen, “It does raise questions about the invasion of the private sector by the public office, and where those lines ought to be drawn. To what lengths can a society reach in order to maintain order?”

The other student’s response could’ve been cribbed from the same manual on politics. Soon the two were engrossed and ignoring her. The other passengers retreated to their newspapers, novels, or naps.

Between dozing and the inevitable tedium, Mercy was uncertain how much time had passed when she heard the popping noise again—the one that, she’d been assured, was only the result of a pneumatic hammer. But this time, when she looked out over the now-​black mountains and valleys below, she knew she was well above any hammers or other tools. And down there, in broken lines and in sparkling flashes, she could see more fires in the distance.

All the other passengers were awake already and watching in utter silence, except for the elderly man, who still rested his head upon his wife. But even she strained to see over his head and out the window, wondering, like the rest of them, how close they were to the fighting.

The captain, ordinarily ebullient and talkative, was quiet. Mercy could see him through the gap in the curtain that separated the cockpit from the passenger cabin; in the glow of the low-​lit cockpit lamps, she could tell that his knuckles were white on the steering column. He shot a nervous look at the first mate, but the other man’s attention was occupied by something down below, and then with something in the passenger cabin. He hissed back at the crew members in the rear. “All the lights. Every last one of them, off—now!”

The sound of unbuckling was loud in the otherwise empty space, and the two men in the back went from corner to corner, unplugging the strings that gave a dim electric glow to the Zephyr’s interior.

Gordon Rand asked, in his quietest and calmest voice, “Surely they can’t see us, all the way up here?”

“They can see us,” the captain replied, equally quiet but only half as calm. “All they have to do is look up. Problem is, they won’t see our civilian paint job. We thought we were far enough from the fighting that we could leave the heavy exterior lights back at the station.”

“Are they likely to notice us?” Against all logic, but keeping with the mood, Larsen was whispering.

“Hopefully not,” the captain was quick to say. “I’m going to take us higher, so they won’t hear us if we run the engines. We need to get out of their immediate airspace.”

“What are we doing in their immediate airspace?” Mr. Rand demanded.

The first mate replied, “We aren’t there on purpose, you limey bastard. The Yanks must’ve made a serious push between this morning and this evening. Carter said there’s no way they’d swing this far, unless we’ve gone off course—”

“I know what Carter said,” the captain growled. “And we haven’t gone off course. We’re brushing the south end of the Smokies, for God’s sake. If there’s fighting, it must’ve gotten here faster than the telegraph got to Richmond.”

The students were pressed with their noses against the glass like little boys examining a store display at Christmas. They were actually smiling, as excited as Mercy was nauseated. She’d never been to a front—the CSA’s, or anybody else’s—and knowing one was immediately below made the sides of her head hurt.

In front of her, the old man awakened and asked loudly, “What’s going on?”

Mercy resisted the urge to shush him, but Gordon Rand was nervous enough to wave his hand and say, “Sir, please.”

One of the crew members said, “They can’t hear us all the way up here.”

Everyone knew it was true, but no one wanted to push any of the luck that held them aloft.

It was nearly as black as the inside of a cave, there inside the Zephyr. Only the peeping glow of moonlight bouncing off the clouds lit the scene. The passengers could hardly see one another, though they traded nervous stares, looking from face to face for signs of comfort or confidence and finding nothing but the weak, pale frowns of ghosts.

Down on the ground, the world was bumpy and black, except where artillery flared, fired, and coughed thick plumes of smoke that looked white against the stark pitch of the night around the lines.

If Mercy looked long enough, she could almost see the battle lines themselves, or imagine them, letting her mind fill in the blanks. There, along the nubs of the Smoky Mountains, she could see a strip cut across the earth; it was a fragile thing from such a height, only a dim break in the trees where a railroad ran. It snaked, but not sharply, around the prohibitive geography; and in front of this line, she saw the big guns fanning forward, away from the train tracks, and into the forests.

She leaned out of her seat and asked the cockpit, “Captain, how far are we from Fort Chattanooga?”

“Thirty miles or so. We’re nearly on top of Cleveland, a little town outside it,” he replied without taking his eyes off the windscreen. From inside that tiny rounded space, blinking green and yellow lights flashed against the faces and hands of the men who worked them. “Worst comes to worst, we’ll make it to Cleveland and we can set down there and wait things out.”

Gordon Rand nearly sneered, “Worst comes to worst? We’ll crash and die, isn’t that closer to the worst end of the possibility spectrum?”

“Shut your mouth,” Mercy ordered him. “Have a little goddamned faith, would you?”

“Everyone stay calm!” The captain wasn’t quite breaking the veil of muffled conversation that stayed below the level of ordinary chatter, but his voice was rising. “No one even knows we’re up here.”

“How do you know that?” Dennis asked, sounding anxious for the first time.

“Because no one’s shooting at us yet. Now, all of you, please stay calm, and keep the chatter to a minimum. I need to concentrate.”

Their jolly little leader had turned out to be made of sterner stuff than he looked. That was fine by Mercy, who hadn’t initially pegged him as a man who was accustomed to handling an emergency. His hands worked the controls with familiarity, and there was a set to his jaw that inspired optimism, if not outright confidence. But she heard the first mate say, “We can’t go too much higher; these cabins aren’t pressurized for that kind of altitude.”

And the captain responded, “Yes, Richard. I know. But if we can just spin it up, we can give ourselves an arc and a boost outside their hearing.”

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