Masque Ball: Chapter VII

by Mallard

It felt like I sat there for two years, motionless, before a voice barked “Stand down!” and a moment later Hattie stepped forward, her face white in the glow of the flood lamps, her left arm covered in a red-soaked bandage. She stopped next to me, and stared upward at the tiny twinkling star against the clouds.

“Serah?” she said softly.

I shook my head and pointed.

“Damn that woman,” my superior said and clenched her first on my shoulder. She withdrew her hand and, a moment later, my right ear exploded in pain.

“Ow!” I shouted, stumbling to my feet. “What in the hells–”

“Do you think you’re doing?” Hattie roared, turning my own words against me. “We have no time. That damned airship is escaping, and you’re sitting here moping like a little girl. Are you a little girl, Victor? So weak, unable to do anything to stop the pirates? Casting great damned big birds at them is the best you can do, huh?”

I tried to protest, but Hattie hammered on. “And when you fail, you just sit there and cry? I thought you were a little stronger than that, Victor. I guess I was wrong.”

She turned and stalked away, and I stared after her.

(Ah, it looks like I was too late,) Kristopher whistled idly above me. I shot him a glare. (Your Hattie beat me to it.)

“Damn you both,” I muttered, then straightened up and took a good look at who had surrounded me.

They weren’t Peace Workers. Not even close. The standard khaki uniforms of the Kestral Armed Forces surrounded me, some standing in a stiff parade rest, others staring openly at the sky and the flood lamps that still glowed brightly on the rooftop.

I followed their gaze, and I could still see the tiny glowing light that was Serah’s beacon, though only because I knew where to look. In a few moments, it would be gone. Which gave me no time.

“Right,” I said, snapping back to business. I turned to Hattie. “We need to get in the air and follow them. That’s what Serah put that beacon up for, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let them just waltz away.” Never mind that, thirty seconds prior, I had been about to do just that.

Hattie nodded, but before she could speak, one of the regulars stepped forward.

“Actually, we’ll be taking over from here, Specialist Haas, Sergeant Major Morrison. You should probably get back inside and await debriefing.”

I stared at him. Who in the hells did this guy think he was? I was the one who had run to stop the pirates, who had risked his life to escape their notice. And Hattie had been shot! We had every right to be a part of any forthcoming operations, even if technically it fell under the army’s purview.

I expected that Hattie would say something along those lines, and so it was with some surprise that she said nothing of the sort.

“I don’t recall seeing any notices that this had been transferred,” she said, her voice like ice. It was the sort of voice that usually meant I was in for a dressing-down, the sort of voice that stilled subordinates in their tracks and made the recipient feel an inch tall.

The sergeant–I could just make out his rank in the shadows where he stood–stepped back involuntarily at Hattie’s tone. He opened his mouth, but Hattie didn’t let him speak.

“This started out as a Peace Worker operation. It remains a Peace Worker operation until someone higher than me–which you are not–orders me otherwise. So unless you are willing to help us, get the hell out of my way.”

Not for the first time that evening–and surely not for the last–I found myself confused. What did Hattie mean that this had been a PW operation? We had been at the ball as representatives, and true we had been the first responders, but that hardly gave us authority over it, right? And there was nothing about the situation that particularly screamed Peace Workers at me. The kidnapping of the mayor and the minister–and Serah–was a devastating blow, but still fell well within the jurisdiction of the standard guard.

Then again, Hattie has been known to occasionally bully others into getting her way, combining her personality–no mean weapon–with her rank.

To his credit, after his initial fall-back, the army sergeant held his ground. He gritted his teeth, as if unwilling to say his next words, forcing each one out individually. “I’m sorry, sir. But right now, it’s a matter of logistics. You have two people; we have ten. You just don’t have the manpower to deal with this, sir.”

Hattie gritted her teeth. “We’re coming with you,” she said by way of acknowledgement. Which meant that I didn’t have to. It was a predetermined course of action for me.

The sergeant shook his head. “This isn’t your jurisdiction. We’ll handle this. You–”

“I said, we are going,” Hattie repeated, her voice low. I took an involuntary step backward. “So unless you–”

The sergeant opened his mouth to begin arguing with her more–he seemed to have lost his fear when he won the first argument–but a third voice rang out shrill above them both.

“If she wants to go, let her go! Who do you think you are, to be bickering like children over who gets the last piece of cake? They took my husband! Your mayor! Have you no shame?”

Rachel Downing stood in the doorway, half bent over and panting with effort, one hand still held over the slight bulge in her belly. Her makeup had run, black streaks dripping down her cheeks, and her hair was matted to her forehead with sweat. She no longer looked the beautiful arm piece of the mayor, and something in her eyes had changed. She looked wild, like a caged animal, ready to rip out throats if only she could get her claws on the ones responsible. Hers had not been a marriage of convenience, and however I might dislike Joel Downing, she loved him. And he had been taken from her.

I could understand her upset.

“We’re going, that’s final, and we’re wasting time arguing about it,” I interjected smoothly into the silence that followed Rachel’s outburst. “You can always use two more bodies.” And, I almost added but restrained myself, if you keep arguing about this, I’ll blind you and make you stay behind.

The sergeant grimaced, as if I had forced him to bite into a lemon, then nodded sharply. “You will follow my commands. If you disobey or fall behind, I’ll leave you.”

Ah, the last refuge of those who know they have lost. The final exertion of what little power he had left. I didn’t bother agreeing–I half expected that I would be disobeying him before the night was out, if not in the next ten minutes–but he took my shrug to mean something, and turned to bark orders to his crew.

We turned and filed back through the doorway, past the frantic eyes of Rachel Downing. I paused in the doorway and stared back into the night sky, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Serah’s beacon. But it was gone, swallowed up in the night, and it was a heavy heart that pulled me down the stairs I had raced up so soon before.

 * * * * * * * *

The army had arrived in a convoy of three identical black automobiles, sleek and fast and fully armored. The windows were a dark glass that made the insides impossible to make out, especially in the spotty light of the gas street lamps outside the mayor’s home, and the entire vehicle was fully enclosed, the rear bulging with a hidden boiler and steam engine, only a small pipe sticking up vertically to vent. This was the only point at which the insides of the auto were exposed to the outside, and even it appeared to have a hefty one-way valve to limit access.

These were expensive vehicles, halfway between a standard open automobile and a tank, suitable for driving around in cities and protecting the occupants from the bulk of most dangers, but not something one would drive into an actual battlefield.

Each auto sat four, including a driver, and there had already been a dozen army men. So I was treated to the uniquely unpleasant experience of sitting crammed between two large uniformed men in the rear of one vehicle, straddling a recess that held their rifles. Let me tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than sitting astride two loaded weapons and driving at top speeds through the city at night.

And we were driving fast. The automobile’s air horn blazed almost continuously, roaring our challenge to the other vehicles on the streets of Kestral, letting them know that if they did not move, they would without a doubt be flattened.

Most took the hint. Not always quickly, however, and shouts of alarm and curses filled the air as pedestrians and cyclists leapt to one side. Monowheels tilted dangerously far as they fought against their own momentum, automobiles slid and scraped against stone and wood walls, and the sleek half-tank slid through the morass, skipping through gaps that should have been impossible.

At night, the enormous cargo walkers came out, ferrying goods and equipment to distant cities, eight steel legs pounding the ground as they crept ponderously along, supporting gigantic cargo bays, vehicles, and in one case most of a small house on their backs. These walkers were not much faster than a running man, and had the maneuverability of a charging rhinoceros. It took obscene amounts of fuel to even get one of them moving, and once it had taken its first few steps, it was no mean task to stop it. The pilots had to plan turns and stops well in advance, and a careless mistake, a single sleepy moment, could have disastrous consequences. I had been witness to cargo walkers out of control before. One of the great steel beasts had taken a turn a little too sharply and simply torn the corner off a sturdy brick building, spilling desks, papers, and filing cabinets out into the dark night. No one had been inside, fortunately; one of many reasons the cargo walkers rarely moved during the day.

The walkers obviously couldn’t dodge the pseudo-tank, and didn’t bother trying. The army drivers wove their cars between the pounding legs of the giant autos, and though I knew their skills were more than up to the task, it was still sobering to feel the ground shake as a foot half the width of the automobile itself struck down just moments after we had passed.

Most automobiles can manage an easy thirty or forty miles per hour at cruising speed, and some of the more powerful ones can go as high as fifty or sixty. We must have been cruising at similar speeds through the narrow streets of Kestral, and while the army folk were strapped in and had hefty hand-holds to grab onto, I had nothing but a pair of rifles between my legs and two burly men beside, neither of whom liked me. It was not a pleasant trip.

We slowed down well before we reached our destination; an inevitable side effect of trying to reach Candlepark Station.

The station is the largest and most active transportation hub in all of Kestral, and the nearest to the mayor’s mansion. Every rail line that webs the sky runs into it at some point. Every airship that visits the city docks there at least once. The subway tunnels that had been abandoned beneath the city formed a wide hub beneath the station, and had they been completed, the underground would have swarmed as mercilessly as above.

Though the station quieted some at night, it was a relative thing. Something akin to trying to fit a great lake of water into a swimming pool, as opposed to only a bath tub. Strictly speaking, one was more doable, but practically, both were equally impossible.

The streets around the station were always congested. More than congested: stopped solid. It was the next best thing to a parking lot, and some people in a hurry tended to treat it as such, which only exacerbated matters. Only a bare fortnight ago, I had fairly flown through the crowd, as Scott Casterly had carried me in the most rickety and unstable walker I had ever had the misfortune to ride. Fast, surely. But it does no good to get somewhere quickly unless you also get there in one piece.

This was something the men in the army had also yet to learn, and though we slowed down, it was not nearly as much as I would have thought reasonable.

But then, my own stakes in this matter were as dire as theirs. Hells, more so in my opinion. Let the mayor burn; I was taking Serah back.

The vehicle plowed into the morass of autos, bikes, walkers, and just plain old people, blaring its horn and looking like nothing so much as a sleek black demon breathing smoke from its rear.

The outer edges of the mess were thin enough to allow us to progress a little, but eventually even the armored half-tank had to stop.

“Now what?” I asked. We were still some distance from the station.

“Now,” said the driver, turning and grinning. “We walk.”

The doors struck the side of the neighboring vehicle, and we squeezed out into the bare inches between us. I looked around in the suddenly brighter light of the gas lamps, no longer dimmed by the tinted windows of the auto. The lamps were thick here, lighting the place up to near daylight as a thousand fires burnt from street lamps, from lanterns within the vehicles, and from the station itself. Every window in the station was bright, every gaping maw glowing a cheery yellow and white. Red and blue signal lights burned high atop the building–less a building, and more an enormous termite colony, built and added upon as necessity demanded over the years.

We ran, threading our way between stopped cars, hand-held horns and deep-throated shouts warning those ahead of our coming. I slid through the slim space between two bikes, ran across the exposed back seat of a topless automobile, danced beneath a walker’s spindly legs. Despite my long legs, I was not used to this sort of frantic maneuvering, and the army men beat me to the station proper by several seconds. As promised, they did not wait, and I raced after them, past a congested and perpetually under construction parking space and through a pair of hanger-sized doors that led into the station proper.

Inside, the station appeared much less crowded, simply by the shear scale of the place. A great central space rose several stories high, surrounding by rings of platforms laden with travelers rushing to catch their train or to escape the incoming crush. The army men and I raced across the expansive marble floor for the far wall, chipped and stained by decades of abuse. Murmurs of confusion rose and fell amid the constant ambient echoes from thousands of travelers all throughout the station, voices echoing off thin steel walls, bouncing off decorative marble and filling the air with a low roar.

The far wall of the enormous space held a bank of elevators, constantly in motion, rising up to the various train platforms, and higher still to the levels of the airship towers. And as massive as this room was, I knew the station extended much further back than we could see, occupying the whole of the park that had once been the largest in the city, and that which had given the station its name.

The wait for an open elevator was interminable, and I wanted nothing more than to break away and race up the stairs, just to be doing something, rather than standing and waiting, letting precious seconds seep through my fingers. But the station stretched high, high above the city, and I would collapse in exhaustion long before making it to the top of the spires where the military airships awaited.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a space large enough for most automobiles, and we piled in. Just as the doors began to slide shut, Hattie shoved her way inside, her face set in a pale grimace, the stained bandage now entirely red. Kristopher circled above her injured shoulder in a slow, fiery halo, humming to himself. I opened my mouth to suggest Hattie stay behind–she looked about to collapse–but I didn’t let the words out. She would take it as an insult.

The elevator rose with speed, powerful engines driving the cables that pulled it up and up, to the base of the tower levels. The military tower was further back in the station, but this level was largely empty and for the first time we were able to run all out. My long legs gave me the advantage here, and I did not have a rifle to carry, so I had no trouble keeping pace with the army officials. Hattie again fell behind, but I couldn’t stop to wait, couldn’t risk losing these men. A second, much smaller elevator awaited us, and as we piled into it, she shouted at us, but the men ignored her. I watched her run with a grim look on her face, and I sympathized…but I couldn’t stop and wait. It was for the best, I told myself as the doors cut her off from view. She needed a doctor and rest, though she would never admit it.

When the doors opened once more, it was to a metal platform, the floor corrugated to give some traction against the frightful winds that roared this high above the city. A low fence rimmed the platform, as if that would prevent the gales from picking a person up and throwing him to the ground so far below. I kept well back from the edge. As a rule, heights don’t bother me overmuch, but there’s a difference between standing in Jedediah Millston’s office atop the university and looking out across the city…and this insane platform atop a spindly tower that seemed hardly capable of supporting its own weight. That I knew it had been designed and built by army engineers who had a clue what they were up against did nothing to alleviate my fears, primal and unreasonable.

A covered ramp led to the airship gondola, not unlike a ramp from an ordinary dock to one of the many steamers that called at the Kestral ports…except a misstep here would have far more dire consequences. Yet, people traveled like this every day. Were they insane? Was I?

The soldiers seemed to have no qualms, and led the way onto the ramp that was shockingly stable. Once on it, I could see the heavy steel cables and girders that locked the ramp to the spire, not suspended in midair as I had originally thought. Even if it swayed some as we ran across it, I could almost imagine it was just the breaking of waves rocking the ship we were about to board.

The airship broke away from the spire almost before we were all aboard, and the sergeant pulled the door shut and spun the wheel to lock it as we crept from the dock, the airship’s propellers spinning up to a whine, then a roar.

Inside, the gondola was sparse, utilitarian. Metal floors and benches, where most airships were lavish with elegantly carved wood, thick colorful carpets, paintings across the walls. Traveling was an experience, and the goal was to make it as pleasant and enjoyable a one as possible. But the army had to move large amounts of people and equipment quickly; they had no room for frills. Behind us, the great engines shivered and growled, keeping the airship moving, cruising at speed through the air, though from within I could barely sense our motion. Most of the soldiers sat, to take what rest they could before the upcoming confrontation, but I was too restless to remain still. I made my way to the forward of the gondola, where the pilot sat peering through thick glass at the darkness outside, guiding the airship by a eyesight, aided by a series of dials and gauges. It was a frightening business, at least to me. Near a port, an airship pilot could rely on a nearby spire to communicate via flashing lights, transmitting weather conditions, docking instructions, and so forth. But out between cities, an airship pilot was alone; there was no support he could call in, and if the airship went down, the lives of everyone aboard were solely in the hands of this one man, who in the end, could only do so much.

He was peering at the compass now, steering the airship toward the last place we had seen the beacon. I was surprised he remembered.; I had gotten turned around on the frantic rush to and through the station and had not the slightest idea which direction to fly. It was frightening to think that, had I been in charge, we would never have gotten past this first stage, never have a hope of catching the pirate airship.

After a few minutes, the pilot let out an exasperated sigh and spoke, his eyes never wavering from the instruments. “Look, do you want something?”

“Um,” I said. Of course I wanted something. I wanted him to be faster. I wanted Serah safe and in my arms. I wanted to sit at home with a mug of hot tea and a good book, a plate of Annabella’s blackcurrant scones fresh from the oven, Kristopher singing quietly to himself in the fireplace.

“You’re one of them, right, magic guys?” the pilot asked when I didn’t continue.

I nodded, then said “yes,” when I realized he still wasn’t looking at me.

“Can you do anything to help? Track that beacon, make us move faster, anything?”

I thought for a second. “I could…give us some light?” Maybe that would make it easier to see the pirates if we got close enough. The pilot snorted.

“About the opposite of what we need, then. You catch a glimpse of the airship before you got in?” It took me a moment to realize he was asking about the one we were currently flying, not the one we chased.

“Not really.”

“Well, if you had, you’d know it was a stealth gal. No insignia, no colors, no lights. Last thing we need is a great bright light to show the pirates exactly where we are. If they go to ground, we’re done for. Now, unless you’ve got a spyglass in that coat of yours, I’d prefer you get back with the others. You’re distracting.”

I turned to go. Then stopped. Not a spyglass, but…

“You still here?” he said, a note of annoyance creeping in his voice.

“Yes,” I said, looking past him out the window. “Shut up for a second, please.” I stepped closer to the plates of glass that made up most of the front of the gondola. I focused beyond that, to the dark air outside the airship. The night seemed to grow brighter in my sight, as my senses came alive, showing me the rays of light passing from every which way through the air and the glass. Light from below us, ambient light of the city we were still passing over; light from the stars and the moon, what little made it through the dense cloud cover; and somewhere out there, the light of that lone lantern Serah had rigged to mark the pirate airship.

I saw the rays of light, and carefully, delicately, reached out to bend them. First to converge and concentrate them, then to diverge them back to parallel. This was a much finer art than the periscope effect I had used so disastrously a few weeks previous to peer around corners at the group of terrorists who had kidnapped a little boy. Lensing was necessarily a delicate business, and it always took a bit of time to get right, adjusting it incrementally until, suddenly, the rays bent in just the right way and we had a working spyglass before us. There was nothing to see yet beyond the dark clouds, but the pilot could tell that something was different, and he spoke, a frown in his voice.

“What the hell did you just do?”

“You wanted a spyglass,” I said absently, concentrating on keeping the effect in place, scanning the sky in front of us for a pinpoint of light lower than stars, higher than a house. Vague shapes leapt out at me from the dimness: tall trees and buildings, low fuzzy stars on the horizon, and there, out in the distance, a tiny pinpoint of orange.

Hardly breathing, I stretched the lenses, pulling them larger to get more light. The focus failed, and for a moment I lost the spot entirely, but I took my time to readjust, and several seconds later it floated back into being.

I couldn’t tell how far it was, or how fast it was moving, and the image was too fuzzy and dim to see the airship itself, but at least now we had a direction.

I allowed myself to relax a little, no longer needing to fine-tune the “spyglass,” and I sank into the empty copilot’s seat. The pilot said nothing, seeming to understand what I had done, and simply steered the airship toward that distant point, flickering in the blackness of night.

* * * * * * * *
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