Dreadnought Page 12

“Three raps might mean help, or hurry, or go to hell, for all I know. Just check!”

Robert attempted to follow orders, scaling the ladder not quite so smoothly as Ernie. He reached the top just in time to hear another spray of fire, a wildcat’s yowl of tearing sheet metal. “What was that?” he demanded. No one answered him.

Everyone knew exactly as much as he did—that they’d been hit again, though heaven knew where or how badly. And then the captain knew, and probably the first mate also, for both of them made unhappy noises and yanked at the controls. Finally the first mate wanted to know, “What have we lost?” and the captain said back, “One of the rudders. Let’s just pray we’re over our own lines now, because there’s no way we’re doing anymore turning, unless it’s in circles.”

Above her head and to the right, Mercy heard Robert call, “Ernie! Where you at? You need a hand?”

Mercy joined the rest of the passengers in listening, perched on the very edge of their seats, breathing shallowly while waiting for a response. None came.

Robert called again: “Ernie? You out there?” His phrasing raised the possibility that he wasn’t out there, that he’d fallen or been picked off by the puncturing line of fire.

But then, to everyone’s relief, they heard the faint scrape of boots against steel, and Ernie called back, “I’m still here. Hold on.” Then they all heard more scuttling. “Getting down is easier than getting up.”

When Robert helped pull him back inside, everyone could see precisely why. His left hand was covered in blood, and the sailor-​turned-​dirigible-​crewman was as pale as death in the unlit cabin. He announced, “One of the lanterns busted in my hand while I was trying to hang it. But the other two are up and holding. I placed ’em by the ‘civilian’ end of the sign. That’s where the CSA logo is tamped on, anyway. Hopefully they’ll see it all right.”

“It might’ve worked,” Gordon Rand posited. “No one’s shooting at us. Not right this second.”

The first mate said, “Maybe someone’s planning to make the next shot count. Or maybe they can’t see the paint job yet and they’re trying to get a good look.”

Rand added, “Or perhaps they’re slow readers.”

Mercy was out of her chair now, invigorated by the prospect of having something to do. She told Ernie, “Come sit over here, by me. And give me your hand.”

He joined her at her seat and sat patiently while she rummaged through her sack.

“Everybody hang on to something. We’re losing altitude,” the first mate announced.

The captain amended the announcement to include, “We’re going down, but we aren’t crashing. Brace yourselves as you can, but I repeat, we are not crashing. The steering’s all but gone out, that’s all, so I can raise or lower us, but not point us in any direction.”

“Are we behind southern lines?” someone other than Mercy asked, but she didn’t see who’d raised the question again.

“Yes,” the captain’s tone of certainty was an outright lie, but he stuck to it. “We’re just setting down, but we might take a tree or two with us. Estimated time to landing, maybe two or three minutes—I’ve got to take her down swift, because we’re drifting back the other way.”

“Oh, God,” said the old lady.

“Don’t holler for him yet,” Mercy muttered. “It might not be as bad as all that. Ernie, let me see your hand.”

“We’ve only got a couple of minutes—”

“I only need a couple of minutes. Now hold still and let me look.” By then, she’d found her bandage rolls. She tore off a portion of one, and used it to wipe the area clear enough to see it better. It wasn’t all cuts, and it wasn’t all burns. In the very dim light that squeezed in through the windows, she could see it was a blending of both. Mercy would’ve bet against him ever having proper use of his mangled index finger again; but the wound wouldn’t be a killing one unless it took to festering.

“How bad is it?” he asked her, both too nervous too look, and too nervous to look away. He blinked, holding his head away so he couldn’t be accused of watching.

“Not so bad. Must hurt like the dickens, though. I need to wash it and wrap it up.”

“We only have—”

“Hold it up, above your shoulder. It’ll bleed slower and hurt less that way,” she urged, and dived back into the bag. Seconds later, she retrieved a heavy glass bottle filled with a viscous clear liquid that glimmered in the moonlight and the feeble glow from the lanterns outside.

He said, “We’re going down. We’re really going down.”

He was looking out the window beside her head. She could see it, too—the way the clouds were spilling past. She tried to ignore them, and to ignore the throat-​catching drop of the craft.

“Don’t look out there. Look at me,” she commanded. Meeting his eyes she saw his fear, and his pain, and the way he was so pallid from the injury or the stress of acquiring it. But she held his eyes anyway, until she had to take his hand and swab it off with a dampened bandage.

The Zephyr was not falling, exactly. But Mercy could not in good conscience say that it was “landing” either. Her stomach was up in her mouth, nearly in her ears, she thought; and her ears were popping every time she swallowed. If she didn’t concentrate on something else, she’d start screaming, so she focused on the bleeding, burned hand as she cleaned it, then propped Ernie’s elbow on the headrest to keep it upright while she fumbled for dry bandages.

The old man leaned forward and threw up on the floor. His wife patted at his back, then felt around for any bags or rags to contain or clean it. Finding none, and lacking anything better to do, she returned to the back-​patting. Mercy couldn’t help them, so she stayed with Ernie, wrapping his still-​bleeding hand and doing it swiftly, as if she’d been mummifying hands for her whole life. She did it like the world was ending at any minute, because for all she knew, it might be.

But things could be worse. No one was shooting at them.

She told Ernie, “Hold it above your heart and it won’t throb so bad. Did I tell you that already?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Well, keep doing it.” She gasped then as the ship gave a lurch and a heave as if its own stomach were sinking and rising. The captain told everyone to “Hang on to something!” but there was no something handy except for the seat.

Ernie went for chivalry, flinging his right arm over Mercy’s shoulder and pulling her under his chest; she ducked there, and wrapped her left arm around his waist. She closed her eyes so she couldn’t see the ground rearing up out the window, not even out of her peripheral vision.

The next phase was not as sudden as she’d expected. It sneaked up on her, taking her breath away as the Zephyr sliced through treetops that dragged it to a slower pace, then snagged it and pulled it down to the ground with a horrible rending of metal and rivets. The ship sagged, and dipped, and bounced softly. No one inside it moved.

“Is it—?” asked the old woman whose name Mercy still didn’t know. “Are we—?”

“No!” barked the captain. “Wait! A little—”

Mercy thought he might’ve been about to say farther, because something snapped, and the craft dropped about fifteen feet to land on the ground like a stone.

Though it jarred, and made Mercy bite her tongue and somehow twist her elbow funny, the finality of the settled craft was a relief—if only for a minute. The ship’s angle was all wrong, having landed on its belly without a tethering distance. From this position, they lacked the standard means of opening the ship to let them all go free. A moment of claustrophobic horror nearly brought tears to Mercy’s eyes.

Then she heard the voices outside, calling and knocking; and the voices rode with accents that came from close to home.

Someone was beating against the hull, and asking, “Is everybody all right in there? Hey, can anybody hear me?”

The captain shouted back, “Yes! I can hear you! And I think everyone is . . .” He unstrapped himself from his seat—the only seats with straps were in the cockpit—and looked around the cabin. “I think everyone is all right.”

“This a civvy ship?” asked another voice.

“Says so right on the bottom. Didn’t you see it coming down?”

“No, I didn’t. And I can’t read, nohow.”

Their banal chatter cheered Mercy greatly, purely because it sounded normal—like normal conversation that normal people might have following an accident. It took her a few seconds to realize that she could hear gunfire in the not-​very-​distant distance.

She disentangled herself from Ernie, who was panting as if he’d run all the way from the clouds to the ground. She nudged him aside and half stepped, half toppled out of her seat, bringing her bags with her. The crewman came behind, joining the rest of the passengers who were trying to stand in the canted aisle.

“There’s an access port, on top!” the captain said to his windshield.

That’s when Mercy saw the man they were speaking to outside, holding a lantern and squinting to see inside. He was blond under his smushed gray hat, and his face was covered either in shadows or gunpowder. He tapped one finger against the windshield and said, “Tell me where it is.”

The captain gestured, since he knew he was being watched. “We can open it from inside, but we’ve got a couple of women on board, and some older folks. We’re going to need some help getting everyone down to the ground.”

“I don’t need any help,” Mercy assured him, but he wasn’t listening, and no one else was, either.

Robert was already on his way up the ladder that he and Ernie had both scaled earlier, though he dangled from it strangely, so tilted was the ship’s interior. He wrapped his legs around the rungs and used one hand to crank the latch, then shoved the portal out. It flopped and clanged, and was still. Robert kept his legs cinched around the ladder and braced himself that way, so he could work his arms free.

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