Masque Ball: Chapter IX (cont.)

by Mallard

The aeroplane was waiting for us, the only vehicle on the field at the time, the runway having been cleared by a telegraphed-ahead request. The rear of the cargo plane was down, forming a ramp up to an opening nearly wide enough to drive the train through. Cramped metal seats lined the walls inside the bay, and I strapped in, trying hard not to think about how useless the restraints would prove when the plane fell out of the sky.

Not needing nor understanding the restraints, Kristopher wandered about the cargo bay, exploring the strange machine secured in the center. It looked almost like a smaller aeroplane, though the wings did not look quite right, stubby and rounded where the cargo plane’s were long and rectangular. Perhaps it was a glider of some sort? It was streamlined and flat where the cargo plane was bulky, and much smaller as well. Despite the difference in size, however, the strapped-in plane looked large enough to accommodate all of us, perhaps with room to spare, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was for. Would we launch the smaller plane out the rear of the cargo plane? What purpose could that possibly serve? Was it simply leftover cargo that the airfield had not had time to remove before our arrival?

“What in the hells is that thing?” Gillespie asked suddenly, and it took me a moment to realize he was looking not at the second plane, but at the fiery spark floating in circles around it. I looked over at the airship pilot, and saw that more than a few of the soldiers were staring at Kristopher.

“Er. Right. Meet Kristopher, salamander.” Not the best of introductions, but I was not in my best frame of mind, either, distracted by the imminent take-off. Have I mentioned I don’t like aeroplanes?

Kristopher whistled a wordless greeting in an almost offhand manner, intent on the machine in the center.

(It is not a creature of fire,) he said a moment later, returning to me. (Unlike most of your craft.) Which I took to mean the smaller plane was not steam-powered, but what, then, could it be? I wanted to ask, but the other soldiers distracted me with questions, some having evidently heard of the salamander within the ranks of the Peace Workers, but knowing little beyond that. I realized that perhaps I was not the only one nervous to be aboard this deathtrap, and I entertained their questions as best I could.

A few minutes later, the sunlight grew dim and vanished as the loading ramp was pulled up by powerful hydraulics and secured by two soldiers who seemed the most comfortable aboard the plane. Shortly after, a low growling enveloped the cargo bay and the aeroplane began to vibrate, rattling my teeth and bouncing my body against the restraints I had secured only minutes before. The enormous steam engines that dominated the center of the craft were powering up, beginning to spin the propellers that weighed on the wings and the nose of the craft. The low rumble gave way to a high-pitched whine as the propellers took on momentum, and slowly the heap of metal that was the aeroplane began to crawl forward.

Had I been standing safely on solid ground and watching the process, I might have appreciated the engineering that had gone into it. Decades of research and experiments, of redesign and prayer; constant failure with the rare hint of success. I’m sure Serah would gush. I just prayed to whichever of the four gods would listen that I be allowed to return to the ground in one piece.

The craft picked up speed and the straps strained to keep me from falling sideways onto the soldier next to me. The jarring grew worse, until an unseen force suddenly shoved me into my seat and the vibrations vanished as the craft rose into the air. And kept rising, soaring above Cinsa Bargo, the only sounds now the rumbling of the steam engines and the muted roar of the wind testing the imperfect seals on the cargo doors.

Part of me was terrified. Another, though, wanted nothing more than to find a window and peer outside, envying Kristopher his free reign about the craft, which he was using to the fullest, bouncing between the walls that closed us off from the engines, and the locked rear door of the bay. So intent was I on watching him that I missed the fact that Sergeant Amos was speaking. He stood with one hand on the smaller craft in the center of the bay, steadying himself against the turbulence that rocked the aeroplane.

“As you know, less than an hour ago our scout teams found what we believe to be the hideout used by the pirates. It is a small, mobile, semi-submersible oil rig, likely commandeered during the wars as an outlook.”

That got my attention. I was familiar with those rigs. No doubt this was, in fact, the same one the 14th division had ‘borrowed’ during the wars, using it as a base from which to launch boats and airships for reconnaissance missions, and to keep watch for both the steel ships of the Royal Army, and the bone-and-hide beastboats of the Patchwork Folk. The rig had barely floated, little more than a square platform and a short airship tower protruding above the waves, and it had leaked something awful, never designed for the service life it had endured. It had required several pumps running constantly to prevent it from sinking, and its drill was laughably small, useful only for shallow water drilling.

Still, it had belonged to that tiny coastal town, and they hadn’t wanted to give it up, more out of principle than any practical use they wrought from it. So we had appropriated it, sending the lone guard back to the shore on a lifeboat and motoring the ungainly thing out to sea. Thus we had become guilty of the same excesses and abuses that had caused the Republic to form in the first place, but of course, at the time we justified it to ourselves in some way or another. We had handed the thing off to the tiny navy of the Guard eventually, but it appeared the 14th infantry had taken it back once the war ended and the Guard no longer needed it. No longer existed.

Amos continued. “We have positive identification of the airship they used last night, docked at the rig. No boats have been seen near the rig since we began surveillance, but they had approximately four and a half hours between when we lost them and when the survey teams found them, so it’s possible they abandoned the base in that time. Until and unless confirmed, we will assume that the pirates are present, armed, and dangerous, and that any attempt to land at or near the base will result in immediate defensive action.”

He tapped the small, sleek craft lightly with one hand. “For those unfamiliar, this is a high-altitude deployable submersible, which will be launched from the aeroplane as we pass near the base. From there, we will need to find or make an underwater entrance. Unfortunately, we don’t know the schematics of the rig, and will need to assess the base on-site.” He didn’t look pleased at this, and I almost raised my voice to tell him what I knew, but the knowledge stuck in my throat. It wasn’t as if these people did not know that I had once fought for the Republic, but to explain that, not only had I fought for them, but had stolen for them, spied for them; had lived and worked and played with these men and women with whom we were about to engage in battle…

So engrossed was I in my thoughts, I missed his next few sentences, presumably about how to operate the high-altitude deployable submersible, whatever that seemingly-random collection of words might actually mean. Why not call it what it was? Except, what was it? Perhaps I should have been paying more attention.

There was little else to the briefing that I did not already know. Amos went over some background of the people we were up against, but I knew far more than he, and none of it was anything I particularly wanted to remember. It wasn’t that they were bad people. Or at least, they hadn’t started out that way. Does anyone, truly? But the trials of war, the shortages, the horrors of seeing your comrades ripped apart by monstrous warriors from across the sea, or gunned down by the very armies once professing to protect you…it was enough to warp any sane mind. In the years of war, I had watched my comrades change from rightfully angry protesters, to hungry and desperate soldiers who broke the rules to stay alive, to…something else. They–we–had become unhinged somehow, the line between morality and survival blurring until an act only seemed wrong if it did not further our ends.

Our squad leader had been hit the worst. He had lost his family in the war, and I watched the man devolve from a concerned citizen to half a madman. But a madman with conviction, and it was too long before I began to recognize the horror of the things he persuaded and ordered us to do. At what I had been forced to do under his direction.

No. At what I had done, willingly, willfully.

My fingers clenched, and it was several seconds before I noticed Hattie Morrison watching me with narrowed eyes. I relaxed my fist, frightened again that she might have known me better than myself, might have been right to leave me in the dark on this mission.

I shook my head violently and forced my thoughts back to the situation at hand. That the 14th division had kidnapped Joel Downing and Martha Chorice did not surprise me in the least. The first because of his extremely vocal opposition to any sort of amnesty to the rebels. And the second…that was harder to figure, actually. Martha had been one of the few to argue for the amnesty. But, if I put myself in their shoes, it made sense. The rest of the nation would see the Peace Workers as proof that the Guard had been defeated, its soldiers actively working toward the greater good of the nation, no longer a threat beyond the stories one might whisper to a child before bedtime. But to those who still saw themselves as part of the Republic, to those who resented the destruction of their nation, the death of their people, the injustices perpetrated upon them…to those, the Peace Workers would be an insult, undermining everything they had lived and died for. Undoing the works of the infant nation, defending those who had so abused their power early in the wars, helping those whose steam tanks had crushed the much smaller armies of the Republic. Yes, I could understand why someone such as Martha Chorice would be reviled by my former comrades.

* * * * * * * *

The aeroplane covered the distance to the base in less than half the time we had spent chasing the airship the night before. Convenient, I’ll admit, but I would still not wish the travel experience on anyone, strapped into a hard and chilly seat, barely able to hear the army sergeant speak above the roar of the engines and the screech of the wind.

At some signal from the pilots, Hattie and Sergeant Amos had us unstrap and load ourselves into the high altitude whatsit, strapping once again into even tighter quarters, crammed on a bench between burly men in khaki uniforms. The top of the craft was low to our heads, and more than a few nervous glances were leveled at Kristopher, who had to take care not to singe hairs.

It was only after the rushed boarding that I gained an inkling of what the craft was for, and by then it was far too late.

“Have you lost your damned mind?” I shouted at Amos above the roar of the wind that filled the cargo bay as the massive cargo ramp began to drop, cranked open by two men who stood strapped to the wall.

“Shut up, or stay behind!” was the only reply I had, and not from him either. I turned to glare at Hattie, but shut up, swallowing and tightening my straps until they dug into my flesh. I glanced at the pilot Gillespie, who sat to my right, and he nodded at me, his face ashen. Used as he was to airships, I doubted he was any more comfortable with this insane plan as I was.

With the cargo ramp fully opened, the two men pulled themselves hand over hand back inside and out of sight, and a moment later, the submersible jerked forward and stopped, then began to slide smoothly toward the opening in the back of the aeroplane.

I have heard of people who–for fun, mind you–climb aboard a perfectly good airship, fly high into the air, and then leap out of it. For fun. A giant cloth sail spreads out behind them and slows them down rapidly, bruising their upper bodies with the forces involved, until they land hard on a grassy field, sometimes breaking their legs, other times merely falling flat on their face as the parachute pulls them off balance.

All this, I say again, for fun.

Compared to what I was about to embark upon, this skydiving seemed the height of sanity.

I fought not to scream as the submersible fell out of the back of the aeroplane and plummeted like a stone to the choppy waters below.

* * * * * * * *

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