Dreadnought Page 11

“It looks hot down there. They won’t hear a damn thing. And if we don’t shoot the boosters now, we’ll—”

“I’m doing the best I can. You see over there?” He pointed at something no one could see, but all the eavesdropping passengers craned their necks to spy at it regardless. “That’s the northern line. It’s got to be. And the southern one is back this way. Other than that, I can’t make heads or tails of what’s going on down there. But it’s either south or north for us—the fighting’s running east and west. I’ll take my chances with my own kind.”

“Your own kind can’t read in the dark any better than the boys in blue,” Richard countered. “They won’t see that we’re private and licensed until after they shoot us down, for all the good that’ll do us.”

“They’re not going to shoot us down. They don’t even know we’re here,” Gates repeated.

This was the moment fate chose to make a liar out of him.

Something struck them, a glancing blow that winged the outer edge of the Zephyr’s port side. The ship rocked and steadied, and the captain took the opportunity to gun the boosters hard—sending everyone slamming back in their seats. “Oh, God,” said one student, and the other gripped his friend’s arm as hard as he gripped the seat’s arm. Neither one of them was smiling anymore.

Mercy grabbed her seat and took a deep breath that she sucked in slow, then let out all at once.

“I thought you were taking us higher!” hollered Richard.

The captain said, “No point in that now, is there? They damned well know we’re—”

Another loud clang—like a brick hitting a cymbal, or a bullet hitting a cooking pot—pinged much louder and much closer, somewhere along the ship’s underbelly.

“Here. They know we’re here,” he finished as he leaned his full, copious weight back, drawing the steering column with him. From her tense position a few rows away, Mercy could see him digging his feet into a pair of pedals beneath the control panel.

“Then what’s the plan?” the Englishman asked, his words snapping together like beads.

The old woman asked, “Who’s shooting at us? Our boys, or theirs?”

And Mercy answered shrilly, “Who cares?”

“I don’t know!” the captain said through clenched teeth. “Either side. Both. Neither one has any way of knowing who we’re flying for, and it’s too dark to see our civvy designation.”

“Can’t we shine a light on it or something?” Mercy asked.

“We don’t have those kinds of lights,” the captain said. “We left them in Richmond for the next crew flying border territory.” But something in the hesitation between the words implied he was still pondering them.

A series of hits, small but more accurate, peppered the undercarriage.

The old man started to cry. His wife clutched him around the shoulders.

The students were out of their seats, and the two crewmen from the back came forward, urging them to sit down.

One of these crewmen held out his hands, standing between the cockpit and the passenger area. He said to the captain, though he was watching the passengers, “We have the dual-​light torches. If we could hook a few to the hull, we could show our boys we’re on their side. Get at least one set of shooters off our case.”

The captain snapped back, “Are you joking? Those things are barely lanterns, and if you unhook them from the power source, they’ll burn for only a few—” He swung the ship hard to the right, responding to some threat Mercy couldn’t see. “—minutes.”

“It’s better than nothing, ain’t it?” the crewman pressed. “It’ll get us behind our own lines. They’ll see we’re one of theirs, and let us land.”

“Do you want to be the man who climbs outside and tries to hang them, like a row of goddamned Christmas candles?” The captain was shouting now, but the crewman didn’t flinch.

He nodded. “I’ll do it. I sailed before I took to the air. I’ve dangled from less than our outer hull, sir.”

Every face was turned to him, except for the man who steered the dark and bouncing ship through the night. They looked at him with hope, and with bewilderment. Even Mercy wanted to tell him he was mad, but she didn’t. Instead she prayed that he was serious.

“You’ll get yourself shot,” the captain told him.

“Or we’ll all of us go down in flames. I don’t mind taking my chances, sir,” he said. Without waiting to be dismissed, he ducked back into the recesses behind the seating area. His fellow mate swung his eyes back and forth, from the authority to his friend.

“Ernie,” he called into the dark place behind the back nook’s curtain. “Ernie, I’ll come with you. I’ll help out.”

Ernie’s head popped back out, splitting the curtains. His shoulders and torso followed, and his right hand appeared toting a cluster of strangely shaped lanterns that glowed like lightning bugs. Their gleam cast a yellow green glow around the cabin, not so bright that it could be seen from the ground, surely.

The old woman said crossly, “Those things don’t have near enough light. They’ll never reveal our sign from the field.”

But Ernie said, “Ma’am, they’re turned down low, on purpose. For now. I’ll spark them up when I get outside—and they’ll stay real bright for four or five minutes. They run on an electrical charge, and a static liquid on a set of filaments,” he explained, as if anyone present had the faintest clue what it meant. “When I flip the switch, it’ll light up the whole damn sky, plenty enough for the Rebs to spy us and let us down. Captain,” he said as he changed direction, “get us as far behind our own lines as you can, sir.”

Mercy fidgeted with the seat back in front of her. “Is there anything we can do to help?” she finally asked.

She could hardly see Ernie’s face, even in the ambient ooze of the lanterns.

He said, “No ma’am. Just hold on tight, I’ll take care of this. Or I’ll do the best I can, anyhow.”

“Ernest,” the captain said, making some token attempt to stop him or sway him. But he had nothing else to add, so he turned his attention forward. The dirigible swayed again, making Mercy wonder if he could see some of the threat as it fired up at them through the sky. “Ernest,” he finally finished. “Be careful out there. What are you wearing?”


“Wearing—,” he said again, and looked very fast over his shoulder. “I see. You’re sporting your grays. Throw on something darker. Robert, give him your jacket. Yours is black, isn’t it?”

“Yes sir,” said the other crewman. He pulled it off and tossed it to Ernie, who set the lamps down only long enough to don it.

Ernie nodded his thanks and retrieved the lamps, then mounted a ladder that Mercy hadn’t seen until just that moment. He leaped up it like a small boy scaling an oak. She’d never seen a man climb like that before, as if he were born in a tree.

He was gone, his feet disappearing up a hatch.

Another strip of rounds banged against the ship’s underside, casting a horrible noise into the otherwise stone-​silent cabin. Mercy leaned against the window and tried to keep from looking out at the blackness and height that horrified her whether she admitted it or not. Consumed by feelings of uselessness and doubt, she clung to the edge of the seat in front of her.

Above and beyond, she could hear Ernie climbing, scuttling out some portal in the hull and balancing—she could hear it, or imagine it, the way he stood and gripped and held his breath to keep his angles upright—then half-​slipping, half-​crawling along the exterior. She could hear the way his hands and feet found handholds and footholds, and the stomp of the toe of his boots hitting horizontally against the hull. She tracked it.

Around. Sideways. Down. Over. Down some more.

Soon he was underneath them, holding on to God knew what.

Under her feet she could feel him, swinging like a monkey from hook to hook, or metallic outcropping to outcropping. The ship ticked, ever so slightly, left to right and forward and back. Ernie wasn’t a heavy man—Mercy thought maybe he was 150 pounds, soaking wet with rocks in his pockets—but his gravity was enough to change the flow of the dirigible’s progress, and the passengers could feel the faint jerk to the flow through the floor at their feet. It was the tapping pull of his body, slinging from point to point.

Every once in a while, despite the dimming of the lights and the silence of the folks within, a stray antiaircraft bullet dazzled the darkness with a shattering spray of sparks and sound. It was only by luck, all of them knew, that nothing hit harder, or penetrated the hull underneath.

All it would take, Mercy anxiously believed, was one round that entered the cabin and proceeded farther, up into the hydrogen tanks above. One round, and it was over; all of them were burning, and the ship was falling. One round would change everything with its precision, or its blind chance.

Underneath them, Ernie was swinging above the earth, hanging from his hands and firing up lanterns to show the Confederacy that this transport was not intended for target practice, but at the same time drawing the attention and fire of anyone within range.

Mercy lifted her head and asked the captain, “Sir, are we behind southern lines?”

“I think so,” he told her without looking at her. “It’s hard to tell down there. Very hard to tell. And if the Union has any antiaircraft power on its side, it might not matter. We might still be in range. Goddammit, Ernest,” he said with a growl.

As if in reply, three sharp raps banged against the outer hull—not shots, but knocks from a human fist.

Gordon Rand asked, “What does that mean?”

The captain answered, “That he’s done and coming back, I assume. Robert, poke your head out and see if you can help him.”

“You think he needs help?” The second crewman fidgeted over by the ladder.

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