Dreadnought Page 9

“Mrs. Lynch?” He glanced at her hand, which was covered in a tight leather glove and therefore hiding the wedding ring she still wore. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He took her hand and gave it a perfunctory kiss.

She let him do it, then reclaimed the hand and asked, “What business of the Queen’s takes you west, Mr. Rand?”

“I believe I’m going to write a book,” he informed her. “And the subject matter takes me west. It might take me farther south later on, and maybe even into Mexico, if time and health permit. But we shall see.”

Mercy gave him a noncommittal, “Hmm,” and gazed again at the ship, which heaved gently back and forth in its moorings as bits of luggage were loaded up through a rear hatch with a retracting ladder.

The indefatigable Mr. Rand asked, “Keeping an eye on your bags?”

“No. I’m holding my bags.”

“Traveling light. That’s an admirable trait in a woman.”

She was on the verge of saying something rude when the captain came strutting by like a fat little game hen in his tailored uniform.

“My fair passengers!” he addressed them, opening his chubby arms to indicate the group. “I’ve just been informed by headquarters that we’ll be taking off in less than a quarter hour. If you would all be so kind as to board at this time, find the seat that’s marked on your ticket, and make yourselves comfortable. If you have not checked your luggage for rear-​well storage, then please stash your items at your feet, or secure them in any empty seats that might present themselves. We’re traveling at only two-​thirds capacity today, so there should be plenty of room for everything.”

“Oh, this is so exciting,” the older woman cooed in an upper-​class accent that Mercy thought might come from farther east, maybe on the coast, or maybe she only thought that because the woman’s companion was wearing a jacket that reminded Mercy of an ocean trade. But she would’ve made a bet that they hailed from Savannah, or Charleston.

“Exciting!” repeated the husband, who was entirely too thin for his clothing. He rattled around inside it when he took his wife’s arm and let her lead him over to the accordion stairs.

Mercy couldn’t shake the impression that the poor old gentleman wasn’t all there. But his wife was still plenty sharp, and she guided him to the places where she wanted him.

One by one they filed aboard the craft, Mercy refusing to allow Mr. Rand to help hoist her baggage up the stairway, and the little old man babbling happily to his wife. The other two passengers, a pair of students from Atlanta named Larsen and Dennis, were working their way home to family after studying in Richmond for the year. On the way on board, the captain asked one of them if he’d learned anything interesting, and the baby-​faced lad said something about how very fascinating he found the war. Mercy assumed that he found the engagement fascinating because he’d never be bound to fight it. A clubfoot interfered with walking, stair-​climbing, and even settling into a seat. He’d never be drafted, even in the Confederacy’s darkest hours of desperation.

His seat was next to his scholarly friend’s, opposite the aisle from Mercy’s. He gave her a shy smile that might have been less earnest if she’d removed her gloves.

Mr. Rand was forward a few rows, to the nurse’s idle relief. The elderly couple sat behind her. Two of the crew members fastened themselves to a belted rack built into the dirigible’s interior walls, at the rear of the craft; the remaining donned another hat and joined the captain in the cockpit—presumably to serve as copilot, or first mate, or however these things worked. Mercy’s curiosity was dampened by her nervousness, and by the frittering patter of artillery fire she could swear she heard, even from inside the ship.

Something about the look on her face prompted the lame student to ask, “Ma’am?”

And she replied, “Do you hear that? Or is it only me?”

“Hear what?”

“That sound, like gunfire.”

Mr. Rand turned around to meet her eyes, barely, over his shoulder and over his seat back. “Don’t worry about that sound, Mrs. Lynch. It’s the sound of a pneumatic hammer working on rivets somewhere. We’re miles from the nearest fighting, you know.”

“I know,” she said without conviction.

Captain Gates made a rambling, chipper series of announcements over a speaking tube that was all but superfluous. The passenger cabin was so small, and so close to the cockpit, that he could’ve simply turned around and given his announcements in an ordinary speaking voice and everyone would’ve heard him just fine.

He concluded by informing them that, “The claws have been unlatched, the tanks are topped off, and our course is set. We’re ready for takeoff.” With that, the sounds of machinery aligning, clicking, adjusting, and correcting filled the chamber.

But then the lifting of the ship was accompanied by a strange silence, as if all that preparation had been for something imaginary. And now nothing was happening at all, except the belly-​moving rise of the ship as it drifted vertically above the trees to dangle below the low-​lying clouds.

Mercy’s stomach lunged in slow motion, along with the sway of the craft. She placed one hand there as if to hold her belly in place, and gripped the arm of the seat with her other hand. She wasn’t going to vomit. That wasn’t in the cards. But she could hardly bring herself to look out the round portal to her right, at least not for the first few minutes. She gave it only the barest glance until the ride seemed secure and steady and she was convinced that Captain Gates wouldn’t kill everyone on board with an incorrectly pressed button or lever. Then her gaze slipped sideways to the reinforced glass and she peered down and out as far as the curve of the ship allowed. Below, the trees shivered in the breeze and the people at the airyard grew small, as small as mice, and then as small as beetles.

“We’re flying!” declared the old man.

“Indeed, love,” said his wife.

The students tittered to each other, quietly whispering and pointing out landmarks below; and for a moment, Mercy wondered what was wrong with the one who appeared able-​bodied. Why hadn’t he been fighting? Why had he been studying in Richmond? Half the schools were more than half empty. The study of anything but war had become a tricky thing, almost a socially prohibited thing. Still, someone had to read the books, she figured. She’d never been much of a reader herself, but she wouldn’t begrudge anyone else the privilege. God knew the Confederacy needed doctors and military tacticians as surely as it needed mechanics and oilmen, engineers and pilots. Rationally she knew that no one learned these things spontaneously, and that few people even learned them as apprentices. But still, all the young men she’d known for the last few years had been soldiers, and rarely anything else before or after.

As the Zephyr continued to fly without incident, Mercy relaxed enough to close her eyes from time to time, even dozing off. She only realized the ride was changing when the dirigible settled in Winston-​Salem for a fuel refill.

The captain told them they were welcome to stay aboard or disembark in the Carolina airyard, so long as they returned to their seats within half an hour. The students and Mr. Rand did just that. But the elderly man was asleep with his head on his wife’s shoulder, so she remained.

Mercy decided to stay, leaning her head against the cool surface of the window and watching and listening as a tank on a rail just like the one in Richmond approached, docked, and began the hissing pump of hydrogen into the tanks above their heads.

When the students climbed back aboard, they were chattering, like always; their patter was a background hum, blending into the whir and wheeze of the gas flowing from tank to tank through the rubber-​treated hoses with heavy brass fittings.

Mercy ignored them, leaving her eyes closed until she heard one of the students say, “. . . farther south, around Nashville by a wider berth.”

She blinked to awareness, enough to interrupt and ask, “The troops?”

“Beg your pardon, ma’am?”

“The troops? Are you talking about the troops?”

Dennis, the one with the unmarred feet, was a brunet with watery blue eyes and a young man’s mustache. He told her, “We overheard a bit, that’s all. They’re saying the Yankees have made a push to the southeast, so we’ll have to fly out of our way to dodge a battle. I almost hope we don’t,” he added, and the words were tickled by a flutter of excitement.

“Don’t talk that way,” Mercy said. “We end up over a battlefield, and we’re all of us dead as stones.”

“What makes you say that?” he asked.

She shook her head, either sad for him or amazed that he simply didn’t know. Before she could answer, Gordon Rand’s head popped up into the cabin, followed by his torso and a trailing string of gossip.

“The fighting’s going on clear out over the Appalachians, that’s what they’re saying,” he contributed.

Mercy said, “Jesus.”

The young brunet wanted to know more. “Do you think we’ll see fighting?”

To which Mr. Rand said, “We won’t see any, or we’ll all see entirely too much. Mrs. Lynch is right. The moment this little passenger rig brushes up against a hit or two of antiaircraft fire, we’re doomed.”

“Your hearing must be quite remarkable,” she observed, since he hadn’t quite been present when she’d made her observation.

He beamed, and in his near lisp of an accent he continued, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much, if I were you. The captain is presently taking note of the very latest telegraph information from the front, and he’ll adjust our course accordingly. I have the utmost faith in this. In fact, so utmost is my faith that I plan to stay aboard and ride on to Fort Chattanooga in the civilized comfort of this very fine ship.”

“That’s confidence for you,” piped up the old woman, with enough cool sarcasm to surprise them all.

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