Story by Tannar Miller
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
“FIRE!” He yelled. Running through the ship.
“FIRE!” He yelled until it was echoed back to him by the many voices he passed by.
Fire was the enemy. So were the biplanes, attempting to shoot them down, and the hurricane level winds buffeting them through the air. Neither of these was worse than fire. Fire that crawled along the wooden canopy of the airship, racing towards the gas-filled envelope. It was the enemy first and foremost. It had not spread far, but every aviator knew that so much as a spark could send a dirigible up in a ball of flame.
These aviators were no different, running through the narrow catwalk like passages to the engine room in the rear of the ship. They brought water with them, but not enough to end the blaze.
The Captain stepped into the searing heat of the engine room, walking lightly to compensate for the rocking of the ship. He swept his gaze across the room, lingering on the flames for only a moment.
“We ran out of water, Sir,” A young officer explained, flustered. The Captain stepped towards the fire and called to the officers and ensigns.
“Line up, and drop ‘em,” He ordered.
They moved into line and moments later the fire was out, as they zipped up their pants, and heckled First Officer Jenkins for taking so long.
Gunshots reminded them of the still imminent threat of the biplanes and they were running back through the airship.
The Captain settled himself at the console, his hands moving across the familiar controls. His First Officer seated just behind him. They had a complete view of their surroundings, out of the three-inch-thick observation window. The wind was getting worse, tearing at every part of the ship. A mass of black clouds, building on the starboard side, was the source of the fierce winds.
“Biplanes coming in for another pass, Sir,” His First Officer said, as he watched the radar in front of him.
The Captain waited for the tell-tell flash of red coming in from above them. The biplanes bore down on them, raining bullets on the armored canopy. They must have been ordered to not harm the ship or they would have been aiming for the envelope. Ensigns fired the lower machine guns at the planes. The Captain wished he could test out the exterior rocket batteries, but they were useless in wind like this. They were at a standstill. Like a giant eagle, herded by a flock of lesser birds. There were too many of them. Too many, coming too fast. They would soon figure out where their bullets could get through the plating.
If they didn’t do something soon, they would be forced to land. He eyed the roiling dark clouds, flashing ominously. He pulled the intercom down from above him.
“Everyone strap your selves down to something and hold on tight. Things are going to get bumpy,” He said returning the intercom to its place. His First Officer looked up from the radar and gave him an odd look.
“Isn’t it already—” He started to say. The Captain grabbed the intercom again.
“Bumpier, it’s going to get much bumpier. Just…just hold onto something,” He ordered.
He guided the airship towards the coming storm, easing up the throttle for the auxiliary thrusters, waiting for the biplanes to come in for another pass. He waited, and then he saw them, out of the corner of his eye, strafing the ship. He threw the main throttle forward. The ship jumped. The main thrusters catching before the auxiliary thrusters cut in and the whole ship rushed ahead, scattering the incoming planes.
The experimental thruster arrays, light-weight alloy frame and the explosive mix of chemicals that made up its fuel source made this airship one of the fastest in the sky. It couldn’t out run many of the faster military airplanes but in terms of maneuverability and firepower, it far outdid them.
They pushed into the black monster of dark clouds, the wind roaring around them. It shook every part of the ship, knocking them this way and that. The Captain fought with the controls, trying to keep the ship from rolling over, while the wind fought back just as hard.
“What the hell?!” His First Officer yelled, clutching at the navigation console in front of him.
“You don’t see anyone trying to shoot us down now do you?” The Captain asked, through gritted teeth as he struggled with the controls. The inside of the storm was lit up white, as lightning arced off the ship. The whole outside of the canopy crackled with electricity, balls of St Elmo’s fire hanging outside the windows.
Time seemed to freeze as if the storm and the world and everything in it were holding its breath. The younger cabin boys and ensigns shivered with fright, buckled down in seats made for men much larger than them. The older boys looked out with awe at the sight, latching onto anything that was bolted down. On the bridge, the Captain and his First Officer watched the blue-purple-white light of the lightning as it crawled across the metal armor of the airship towards the gas-filled envelope above them.
“SHIT!” His First Officer yelled.
The Captain released his hold on the controls, sending the ship into a spin. The colors outside the window blurred. Grey, black, white, purple blurring together. His First Officer gripped the console his eyes shut tight, mouthing a repeated prayer. The Captain turned the lock on the pressure release valves, flipping each switch and sending the airship careening into a nose dive. The sky exploded just behind them in a ball of fire as the gas, released from the envelope, was ignited by the lightning. They dove deeper into the storm as they fell. The whole canopy shuddering.
Death was above them and Death was behind them and Death was all around them, his billowing black cloak surrounding them, suffocating them. His hands of living lightning squeezing tighter and tighter until they could no longer breathe.
Then there was light.
The light of freedom, the sun shining down on them, the skies calm, the eye of the storm. The Captain’s hands returned to the console, speeding into action. He put every ounce of remaining power into the reverse thrusters, and ran his hand down the pressure switches, turning them all on in one swift move. The ship shuddered, skipping downward, slowing as if it were moving through thick air. The thrusters whined a high-pitched whine as they fought to halt the ship’s descent. They held out, pulling the ship to an almost complete stop, the reserve gas tanks working to fill the envelope, keeping them just barely afloat.
The Captain sighed and sat back in his chair. His First Officer kissing a cross hanging around his neck, smiling. The ship erupted with the whoops and hollers of the crew, nearly drowning out the whine of the thrusters. They hugged and high-fived when a deafening crack rang throughout the ship as one of the main thrusters blew out. They started free falling again before the gas filling the envelope caught up with the weight of the ship. They waited this time, before releasing their death grips on the ship, they waited until they were sure it would hold.
They hung inside the storm then. One thruster keeping them within its midst as they coasted along with it, no way of knowing whether they were going towards their destination, or away from it. The Captain laughed then, a crazy, free laugh.
“Shall we ride a storm?” he asked. His First Officer looking at him as if he were insane.
They were thirty thousand miles from home, in an experimental airship, that may or may not have been stolen and already they had had a fire, been shot at by Germans, and forced to fly straight into a tempest to escape. He had to wonder what else this trip had in store.
The crew was put to work cleaning up the mess that the storm had caused and repairing what they could of the damage. One main thruster was completely broken while the other left a trail of smoke behind it. The envelope had a slow leak and had to be filled continually. They would have to land and get that fixed soon or risk running out of gas completely.
They had no idea where they were, electrical interference from the storm was playing havoc on the navigation instruments, and the First Officer was slaving over maps and charts to try and figure out their location. All the while they were slowly floating downward, hopefully out of the storm completely.
As they descended out of the eye of the storm, the darkness below them was lit with a thousand pinpoints of light. Like the stars above them, only below them instead. As if they were falling the wrong way, deep into the endless darkness of space. The ground loomed nearer as they left the gray clouds of the storm around them.
There was no doubt then, as to which city they had found. No doubt as the twinkling spire of the Eiffel Tower filled their view out of the windshield. The Captain pulled up on the controls lifting the nose of the airship into a steep climb. One that the ship struggled to make, in its current condition. It climbed just above the tip of the tower, barely clearing it, casting its huge shadow over the city.
Paris was nothing like what they had imagined. After its siege early in the war, it had become a skeleton of its former self. Few people walked its streets and those who did skittered between alleys, hiding from patrols. Soldiers ransacked and ravaged what they could of the city, which was anything they laid their eyes on. It was chaos, barely controlled and hidden behind the curtain of military discipline. The Captain and his First Officer watched the city as they passed over it, realizing the extent of the damage that the Axis party brought on those it overcame. It was a relief when they crossed its borders, descending still closer and closer to the ground. With some idea of their location, his First Officer was able to guide them to the nearest Allied controlled city. Vichy, the new capital of France.
They landed on an airstrip outside of Vichy. Greeted with floodlights and rifles, aimed at their battered canopy and leaking envelope. Even then they landed with sighs of relief, they had found safety at last. That was until the Captain turned to his First Officer. He pulled his hat off his head and threw it on the console and tore at the buttons on his jacket. They were still dressed as German soldiers. His First Officer gave him another odd look.
“What are…” And then it dawned on him, and he was following suit with the Captain.
“Order the men to strip down. NOW,” He ordered his First Officer.
The crew stood shivering in the cold outside of the airship. Like beacons of white on the quiet dark airstrip. The only thing whiter than their exposed skin was their starch white boxers and socks. French airmen, in their heavy fur coats, winter hats, and wool mittens, held rifles on the crew. They huddled together, cursing First Officer Jenkins for being inside and warm with the Captain, the only one of the twenty-odd boys on the crew who knew any French whatsoever.
The Captain and his First Officer wore the few scraps of clothing they could find on the ship. Looking rumpled and disreputable.
The Frenchman who was in charge of the Vichy airstrip was a giant of a man. Large in almost every way possible. He was a head taller than the captain and at least twice as wide, with strong prominent features, and personality enough for three men. Even his mustache, spread across his face, was exaggerated. He yelled at them in quick, flowing, machine gun French. Every sentence ending in an obvious question. One that none of them could understand. Jenkins struggled to translate, as the man grew more and more agitated.
“He’s, he’s asking who we are, and why we’re here and where we got the ship, and, and,” The Frenchman rattled off another request.
“He wants to know everything,” First Officer Jenkins said, looking at the Captain, exasperated.
The Captain pulled a dark leather wallet from inside his coat, popping open the clasp and pulling out a folded sheet of yellowed paper. The Frenchman read it with interest. His mustache twitching as he read the words, silently to himself. He thought for a moment and then seemed to come to a decision.
“Hmm. Come,” He said, with a wave of his hand. He must have known more English then he had led them to believe. He took them into an old unused hanger, with a small makeshift office within. A single light swayed above their heads, creaking, as a stove, all four burners lit, warmed the small room with a hiss, and the slight smell of burning dust. A group of airmen sat at a counter, drinking from smudged glasses. The kind one doesn’t look at before drinking from. The man spoke a few quick words to them and they raised their glasses to the newcomers. One of them pulling out three more glasses and filling them with clear liquor from a tall, unlabeled bottle.
“Senut,” The man said, and they all raised their glasses and warmed themselves with the burning liquor.
“Now, my friend, how can we help you?” The Frenchman asked, refilling their glasses.
“My ship needs repairs, as soon as we can get them done,” The Captain said.
“Ah, well that is not something I know we can help with,” The Frenchman said with a shrug.
“We have the material, but I do not know that my men would know what they were even looking at on that beast of a ship of yours,” He said.
“Materials and gas are all we need. My crew can do the work,” The Captain said.
“Speaking of your crew,” the Frenchman said, gesturing at Jenkins, who was warming himself beside the stove.
“We do not have any place large enough to house them here…but…” The Frenchman said in thought.
“Yes?” The Captain asked.
“In Vichy, there is one place that I believe would be willing to take them in for the night,” The Frenchman said.
Many of the boys on the crew became men that night, in Vichy.
The repairs took them most of the next day. Night had descended on the airstrip as the Captain and crew, in their odd mix of German and French uniforms, took off towards their destination.
They flew through the darkness. A darkness that wasn’t complete. Overcast skies that reflected the moonlight, making the sky glow. Only it wasn’t clouds that the moon was reflecting off, but the pea fog haze of factories. Haze that turned the glow from white to a sickly dark yellow-green.
It was quiet above the great city of London. As if the city itself were asleep as the snow fell on its streets. The Captain flew the airship with lights out, blending into the night and passing over the sleeping city like a phantom.
They watched, and they waited, and they let the city lull them into relaxation.
The Captain heard footsteps muffled by the silence, as his first mate stepped onto the bridge. Jenkins handed him a cup of coffee.
“Quiet morning out there,” he said, sitting down, holding his coffee with both hands.
The Captain balanced his mug on the console in a gap amidst the switches. Steam rose off it in slow swirls. He didn’t reply. Remaining silent. Never one to break something so sacred. He watched the skies in front of them, catching glimpses of nothing but what lay directly in front of them.
Something was off, but he couldn’t tell you what it was. Just that it was a fragile silence that surrounded them. Something that could be broken with a spoken word or a rushed step. He almost knew it was going to happen, even before it did.
A beam of yellow light broke the night before them, swaying across the stars, searching. It broke that fragile thing that had surrounded them and seconds after its golden light speared through the haze a siren shattered what remained of the still night. Like the first domino in a line of dominoes, one after another, sirens wailed throughout the city. More search-lights shot into the sky, and behind it all was a droning buzz. Like the thundering, growing roar of a thousand bees.
The Captain watched the light in the sky before them. Waiting. Until. There. Out of the haze, the searchlight picked out a German warplane as it strafed the city below them.
It was a mad genius who had decided to put heavy artillery on a gas-filled airship. Each pull of the trigger a roll of the dice. Each stray casing the difference between life and death. It was the same mad genius who yelled orders through the ship, ordering every hand on deck. Man the cannons. Show them what we’re made of.
There were three men to each gun. One manning the sights, one reloading, and one catching the casings as they popped away from the guns. Ensigns above each gun placement ran the spotlights that gave the briefest glimpses of their targets. The airship flew amongst the swarming airplanes, an immovable bulwark in their center. They were in that moment, Death, carrying out his grim task.
The sky was on fire that morning as the night faded away behind them. It burned with the gunfire of hundreds of airplanes, some allied, some not. It burned with the bombs dropped by the enemy, crumbling streets below them, and it burned with the fire of the sun, streaking across the horizon. Above them all flew a ship, a zeppelin, an airship that couldn’t be beat. It blew more German airplanes out of the air than any other craft that day. Clearing the skies with deadly precision, and power. Something that had never been heard of. Like a tank that could fly. A sky bound warship. One that neither side could go up against.
The boys celebrated their victory as they flew back over France. They celebrated the ship they had come to love. They celebrated until they landed amongst the snowy mountain peaks of Switzerland, in the fields just outside a small village, far from their assigned rendezvous point.
The Captains orders had been simple. Get the ship to London, show the world what it was capable of, and then fly the ship to Switzerland, where he would meet up with agents of the Allies. That was what the one side had ordered him but was far from what the other side had ordered him.
“Looks like we may have gotten hit during the dogfight,” He said, in answer to his First Officer unasked question. He got on the radio and ordered the crew to head into town until he found out what the problem was. They didn’t argue.
“Go ahead and go with the boys, I’ll find out where the problem is,” He told his First Officer, still not looking at him. First Officer Jenkins didn’t move.
“There’s nothing wrong with the ship,” He said.
“Yes, there is,” the Captain said, flipping several switches on the console. His first mate turned to the diagnostic dials.
“Everything looks fine to me,” He said, turning back to the Captain.
The Captain held his pistol level with his First Officer. He didn’t move, he didn’t blink, he knew what had to be done.
“Get off my ship,” He ordered his First Officer.
“I said, get off my ship. That’s an order,” He said.
“Don’t do this, it, it isn’t you,” First Officer Jenkins pleaded, his hands held above him.
“Don’t you ever try and tell me who I am,” The Captain said, lifting his pistol so that it pointed between his First Officers eyes.
“Now get off my ship before I do something that may kill us both,” The Captain said, wishing he hadn’t taught Jenkins as well as he had and wishing he would have just gotten off the ship with the others. His First Officer gave him a look of pure hate, and turned, as the Captain led him off the airship.
They would get home eventually, or if they were lucky they would forget about home and make this small village their own. They would be free, and they wouldn’t have to die, which was the only place that the Captain would lead them.
He found his First Officer’s cross still laying across the console. He left it there as he lifted off from the ground and worked the controls alone, for the first time in a long time. He eased his airship deeper into the mountains and higher. Passing out of Switzerland and into the mountain ranges of Lichtenstein. He flew until a signal passed through the static of his radio. A series of beeps, a question, a request for clearance that only German Pilots knew. He picked up the receiver.
He spoke four words. A code, in German.
“Der Tod von oben,” Death from above.
“Willkommen,” Welcome, they replied.
A valley opened beneath him, surrounded by the range of mountains, hidden from prying eyes.
Lights lit up an airstrip below and he floated his ship down, following the airstrip deep into the heart of the base. More airplanes then he could count sat inside and outside of large steel hangers. All of them dwarfed by his airship. This place was a secret. A place that only the most important men inside the Nazi party knew of. An enormous retaliation force, a force that would wipe away the victories of the Allies. The Captain landed his ship alongside two others, nearly identical to his but for the symbols painted on their envelopes. This was the Nazi’s ace up their sleeve. Their queen in a deadly, worldwide game of chess. He had designed the ships, brought them to life, and given them to his allies. Only those that had once been his allies no longer were. He had flown across Europe, with a crew of men fighting not just for their countries but for the entire world around them. Fighting for freedom. It had changed him. He held tightly to the cross, as he stood up from his chair.
They had been waiting for him, expecting him, and as soon as he had landed they had boarded his airship.
Men lined the deck of the ship, in tight ordered lines. Order that this ship had never seen, with its ragtag crew, and it made the Captain feel weary and tired.
A General stepped onto the ship, looking over the ship with a critical eye, one unaccustomed to disorder. The men moved as one to salute him as he walked through the hatch. All of them but the Captain. He stood inside his masterpiece, his one work of art, and came to a decision.
The General looked at him with a raised eyebrow but did not remark on the Captains refusal to salute. He barked a command to the men, who shifted again, as one, into an at ease position.
“Beautiful work, Captain,” The General said, gesturing at the thing around them.
“It takes an amazing man to perform such a feat, all the more reason it was one of our kind to accomplish it,” He said. The Captain said nothing, watching the General in front of him. Something was wrong, he was too happy. The General let out a barking laugh, half a syllable long, and stepped up to the Captain.
“I see you made an extra pit stop on the way here Captain,” he said, gesturing at the lack of crew accompanying the Captain.
“Feeling sympathy for your crew? Too bad you couldn’t save them all,” The General said, turning. He signaled to a few of the soldiers, who carried a young man between them, bloody and bruised.
“Dammit, Jenkins,” the Captain said under his breath, speaking for the first time then.
Jenkins looked at him with that same look of hate, and mistrust. He couldn’t understand why the Captain had made him leave. He couldn’t understand what the Captain had been planning, ever since that night over London.
“Let him go,” The Captain said, not masking the fact that it was an order. The General’s eyebrow rose again, and he gave an order to the soldiers holding Jenkins. They let him go, dropping him to the ground. He stood slumping, exhausted and in pain, amid an army.
“Thank you,” The Captain said, visibly relaxing.
“Yes, yes,” The General said with a wave of his hand.
“Now kill him,” The General told the Captain.
He didn’t move at first, not until he felt every one of their eyes on him. Watching, waiting, looking to see if he was still one of them. He wasn’t, but they would never know that.
He stepped towards his First Officer and strung the cross over his neck, his hands shaking slightly. He backed away and lifted his pistol. It was heavy in his hand in a way it had never been before.
“I’m sorry,” The Captain said, aiming his pistol. They both knew that he wouldn’t miss at this distance.
“Don’t be,” Jenkins said, sincerely. He knew now. He understood why the Captain was doing this. The Captain had taken the time to give him back his cross, something that didn’t matter. Not really, not in this moment, yet he had done it anyway. That and his pistol wasn’t aimed at Jenkins but at the spare gas canisters behind him and a single spark was all it took.
— ♦♦♦ —
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