Dreadnought Page 8

“I hope to wind up in Washington—all the way on the other coast. But if I understand it right, you can only get me to the river.”

The clerk didn’t ask “Which river?” because everyone knew that the Mississippi was where everything stopped. She pursed her lips thoughtfully and then said, “That is correct, and you can pick it up at Memphis. It ought to be safe enough, that far down from the border skirmishes. If you can get to Fort Chattanooga, you can hop a train there, and make it the rest of the way in no time flat.”

“That sounds fine.” It sounded terrifying, but she swallowed the lump in her throat and stood up straight.

Having now gleaned enough information to begin pressing the protuberant buttons in front of her, the brunette woman peered down at her console as she spoke. “It won’t be a straight flight, you understand. I’m going to send you through Winston-​Salem, and then down to Charlotte, and then over to Fort Chattanooga.” She looked up from the buttons and said with a note of apology, “Ordinarily I’d send you down through Knoxville instead, but you know how it goes.”

“Oh, yes,” Mercy said. “I know how it goes.”

“This’ll add another hour or two to the flight, but it’s safer in the long run, and it won’t cost you any more. Here, let me stamp you out a ticket,” she offered, and something pinged in readiness behind the counter. The clerk braced herself and pressed hard on a lever, using almost her full weight, and a punched card popped up through a slot between the buttons at her waist level.

Mercy traded some money for the ticket, and the clerk pointed toward Row B, Slot Two.

The airship yard was laid out much like a train station—at least, that was Mercy’s impression. She took a seat near the end of the row, where she could keep an eye on the airship comings and goings, but also watch for the dirigible that would carry her down to Tennessee. It hadn’t yet arrived, but she could gather much about it from the other passenger ships that came and went while she observed. All of them were minimally marked, with names like Papillion, Helena Mine, and Catie James. Most had a label across the rear that marked them as CIVILIAN TRANSPORT, to differentiate them from the military ships.

According to everyone who kept track of such things, travel by air was infinitely safer than travel by train (what with the bandits and rail pirates), and even safer than simple carriage (given the highwaymen and unscrupulous checkpoints between regions and war zones). But when the Zephyr drifted into Row B, Slot Two, Mercy felt something in her chest clench with anxiety.

It moved so quietly for something so big; it docked with nothing but the tug and stretch of hemp lines and the creak of metal joints settling, then finally the clack and lock that affixed the great machine to the pipework dock. When the claws were all fastened and the hull had quit bobbing like a child’s toy in a tub, a seam along the hull’s underside cracked and then descended, followed by a folding set of stairs that tumbled down like a dropped accordion.

Down these stairs came the handful of passengers from Raleigh, if Mercy had overheard correctly. None of them looked bruised, battered, frightened, or otherwise shaken by their experience, though several were visibly relieved to have earth beneath their feet again.

Mercy tried to take this as a good sign.

The Zephyr’s captain descended last. He was short, wide, and younger than she’d expected, and seemed cheerful as he met the teams of maintenance men who greeted every new arrival. Mercy lingered by the benches with her five fellow passengers-​to-​be as he discussed the hydrogen levels and how they were holding, and how much of a topping-​off he needed here in Richmond. When his landing duties had been completed, he wandered over to his next batch of passengers and introduced himself with a round of handshakes and a tip of his hat.

“Captain Curry Gates, at your service, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.

Mercy was one of only two ladies present, and the other woman was elderly, accompanied by her equally aged husband. Another two passengers had arrived when the airship came to port, bringing the total number of riders and crew to nine.

“It’ll be about two hundred miles to Winston-​Salem, where we’ll stop for more fuel, then another seventy or so to Charlotte, and not quite three hundred more along the Tennessee line to Fort Chattanooga; then on to Atlanta for our final stop. Does that sound right to everyone? Check your tickets, and make sure this is the ship you’re looking for. The next one on this route won’t be along until tomorrow.”

While he spoke, the remaining two members of his crew were descending behind him, toting equipment and inspecting the work performed by the dock crew, making sure everything satisfied their personal standards. Then they stepped to the side of the ship and behind it, where they began gesturing to something down at the end of the row.

Mercy craned her neck and spied the thing they motioned toward the ship.

It moved on a narrow rail that ran the length of the dock between the rows and was roughly the size of a small train engine, with a taller, rounder shape confined by riveted bands of metal. It looked like a great steel-​crusted loaf of bread, and it came up on the Zephyr smoothly, with only the soft ratcheting sound of segmented wheels on a carefully fitted track. A series of hoses was toted in a rear compartment, like a caboose. The men on the dock unfurled the hoses and locked one end onto the metal canister, one end to some port on the backside of the Zephyr. The biggest man present—a tall fellow in an undershirt, with arms like an ape—climbed up to the top of the canister and turned a valve there, which prompted the hose to puff like an elongated marshmallow as it unloaded the canister’s contents into the ship’s tanks.

One of Mercy’s fellow passengers leaned toward her and said, “Hydrogen.”

She replied, “I know.”

“It’s a marvel, isn’t it?” he pressed, until she turned to regard him.

He was well dressed, and the details would’ve betrayed his foreign origins even if his voice had not. The shoes were a brand and shape Mercy rarely saw; likewise, his suit had a cut that was a few lines distant from contemporary American styles. His hair was dark and curly, and his hands were long, soft, and unmarked—they were the hands of a scholar, not a man prone to labor.

Mercy said, “A marvel, sure. We’re living in an age of them, aren’t we? Practically swimming in them.” She turned again to watch the dirigible refuel.

“You don’t sound too pleased by it.”

“By what?”

“By this age of marvels.”

Mercy looked his way again and he was grinning, very faintly. “You’ve got me there,” she told him. “Most of the marvels I’ve seen are doing a marvelous job of blowing men to bits, so you’ll have to pardon me if, if . . .” Something large clicked with the sound of small arms fire, and she gave a little jump.

“You view these marvels with some trepidation,” he finished for her. “Have you ever flown before?”

“No.” Surrendering to the demands of politeness, though somewhat reluctantly, she tore her attention away from the ship and its tanks long enough to ask, “What about you? You ever been flying before?”

“A few times. And I always consider it a grand adventure, because we don’t have such ships yet in England—at least, not in the numbers one finds here.”

“Is that where you’re from?”

“More or less,” he said, which Mercy thought was a strange answer, but she didn’t ask about it. He continued. “But I understand ships like these are becoming more common in Australia these days, as well.”


He nodded. “So progress must come easier to nations of such tremendous size. Thousands of miles to be traveled in any direction . . . it’s not so surprising that newer, more comfortable methods of long-​distance travel might become more commonplace.”

“I doubt it. It’s a side effect of war, that’s all. These ships were first built for the fronts, but the damn things can’t go more than a few hundred miles without refilling, and they can’t hardly carry any weight at all.”

If he minded her profanity, he didn’t say anything. “Give it time,” he said instead. “The technology improves every day. It won’t be long before people are crossing from coast to coast in machines like this. Or greater machines, built on a similar template.”

“People already go coast to coast with them, but it’s all merchants moving goods here and there, not people. Did you see the armored dirigibles earlier? The ones that came and went from the commerce docks?”

“No, I only just arrived.”

“They’re war machines, and there are only a handful of them—for a real good reason,” she informed him. “The hydrogen’s as flammable as the devil’s knickers, and that don’t work so good with live ammunition flying all over the place. Not a month after the first dirigibles took to the front, antiaircraft guns were up and running, shooting them down like carnival balloons.” She was parroting someone now, and she wasn’t certain whom. One of the soldiers at the hospital? One of the doctors?

“But they’re such impressive instruments. And armored, like you said.”

“Yeah, but the more armor that covers them, the less weight they can carry. The trade-​off makes them a losing bet on the field. Though I heard from one of the retained men that a CSA dirigible was stolen a few years ago, and that people sometimes talk about seeing it out West, flown by a pirate and outfitted for his trade. Maybe it’ll be the frontier pirates, after all, who will show the East how to make them into proper riding vessels.”

“Pirates do tend to be an innovative lot,” he murmured. “By the way, I fear I haven’t introduced myself properly. I’m Gordon Rand, lately of the good Queen’s service, but recently discharged to my own recognizance.”

She almost responded with “Vinita Lynch,” but instead opted for, “I’m Mrs. Lynch.”

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