Author’s note: Life got busy! Finally an update. My apologies for the long delay… I’m finding that this is one of the difficulties of writing and posting as I put words down on paper. It’s difficult to stick to a regular update schedule when life suddenly gets too busy to write every day. As always, this is a very rough unedited first draft, so please forgive any errors on my part.
Later, as Mellira enjoyed the freshly brewed coffee, she thought back on their trips and journeys over the past several years. The job of an airman, Ibben was fond of saying, was a lot like sex – there was a lot of up and down, except that the exciting bits were over far too quickly. Ruther had joined their crew in London, at least eight years ago. She remembered that particularly because of the fire that had spread through the theater district. The Sky Drake had left a day ahead of schedule with a new man aboard.
Time passed, and the crew relied on Slyne more and more. He was organized, efficient, and knew how to command men. The hurricane alone proved that…
“Captain! The wind’s too strong, we’re losing control of the ship!” Len sounded panicked, and when he panicked, he tended toward an even stronger accent, making him that much harder to understand. The Sky Drake had set out from Savannah on a trans-Atlantic flight only to get caught in a monster storm in the middle of the night.
The winds howled around the airship, and rain lashed sideways across the deck. Everywhere Mellira looked the rain blinded her, and she reached down to slip on her goggles. Visibility went from terrible to merely bad. The Sky Drake shuddered and dropped ten feet of altitude in a particularly strong gust. The crew around her were similarly goggled, and all wore the safety harnesses that kept them roped to the ship.
“We need to turn and fly with the wind,” Captain Janus said. “Give the starboard engines more power, Striker. Help me turn this beast the right way!”
The storm consumed most of the spoken words, and Mellira remembered that Slyne had set up a relay of harnessed crew to convey orders. Soaked and shivering, they sent Janus’ orders to the placed they needed to go, and eventually the right engines roared and began, slowly, to turn the ship in the right direction.
Mellira made her way to the bow, going carefully and getting even more soaked along the way. Then, as she took a step, the desk shifted underneath her and she slipped. A moment of freefall terrified her, and the breath was knocked out of her lungs as her harness stopped her fall. She found herself thirty feet beneath the ship, the engines whining above her as they struggled to turn the bulk of the Sky Drake against gale force winds. Mellira felt the harness she wore tighten as the rope it attached to slid across the railing.
She panicked and scrabbled at the rope, her hands sliding off the wet fibers with no effect. She looked up at the Drake and screamed, then coughed in a fit as her face got drenched in rain. When she could see again, she took another look and made out indistinct figures at the rail, pointing down to her. Muffled shouts reached her ears, and the Sky Drake shifted again, continuing his slow port turn. She swung underneath the ship like a pendulum, and grabbed her harness in clenched fists to keep her arms at her sides and stabilize herself. Her coat, already wet even before her slip, was now fully waterlogged, and felt like it weighed several hundred pounds.
Thirty feet beneath the Drake’s hull, Mellira was oblivious to the panic on the deck. Multiple shouts of “man overboard!” echoed from various parts of the ship, and the few crew who could leave their stations did so, gathering at the railing to pull at the rope that was Mellira’s lifeline. Their efforts accomplished nothing as their hands slid on the wet rope just as Mellira’s had.
“Away, fools,” roared Slyne as he pushed through the crew. “You lads know how it’s done, this isn’t the first storm we’ve flown.” He jammed a belling club into the specially drilled slot in the railing, and grabbed at the rope in leather-clad hands. The gloves helped him grip, and with a bellow he pulled up enough rope to throw several loops around the club. Another bellow, and Mellira was hoisted several more feet up to the deck.
“Next lad up,” said Slyne, and traded places with Will. Will had put on gloves, and slowly the dangling Mellira rose higher and higher toward safety. The lifting effort was working, and with the combined work of the crew she made it back to safety. Ruther was the last person to work the rope, and he reached out a hand to pull her back onto the deck.
“Welcome back to solid ground, Mell. How was the rain down there?” he asked as she stepped to the deck.
“Wet and miserable, thanks for asking. And thanks for the lift up, I would have come up myself, but rope is slippery when wet,” she said with a grin.
“So are women,” yelled one of the crew.
“Screw you, Mika. When’s the last time you were with a woman, anyway?” Mellira retorted as she wiped rain from her face. She was soaked to the bone, all her layers of clothing saturated, and she was starting to shiver from the cold. The storm howled around the ship, and the Drake’s deck offered almost no shelter from rain or wind. The airship had made the turn to the wind, and so the tumult was a touch less than it could have been.
“Get below decks and get yourself warmed up, Mell. I won’t have you catch a chest cold and die on me, not after all that lifting I did,” said Slyne.
“Gladly, sir,” she said. Down below, she changed into dry clothes and sat alone for a few minutes. She knew that flying could be dangerous, but facing a freefall from a mile in the air had terrified her. Any number of other things could have gone wrong. The rope could have frayed and snapped; the harness might have broken. The hardware holding the harness to the airship could have stressed and fractured. She could have been hit by lightning. The Sky Drake rumbled around her. Here, deep below decks in her cabin, the airship felt safe and comforting. The storm barely made itself known. Mellira was surprised to realize how willfully she had been ignoring the dangers of her job and life. She loved what she did, and she knew that she was competent and good at her job. But not taking the risks into account was sheer folly. She promised herself that it would not happen again.
Mellira shook her head, and a gust of wind brought her back to the present. No one would have suspected Ruther Slyne of doing what he did. He had saved her life, and been there for the Drake more times than she could count. She wondered who he really was, if she’d ever known the real Ruther. To hide his real identity for close to a decade, if that was really what he had done, seemed mind-boggling.
Mellira knew that he was British, or had very convincingly been pretending to be British. So why flee to Berlin in your stolen Dutch airship? What did the Austria-Prussian Empire have to do with anything? She tried to think through the bits and pieces of history that she had heard over the years.
After Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1814, an uneasy peace had settled on the European continent. Countries rebuilt, still struggling with disease and famine after the war was done. In what was left of the Holy Roman Empire, banditry was rife and chaos ruled. Armed bands roamed the countryside, raping and pillaging. Berlin was a stronghold where the royal family hid like rats. In desperation, the Emperor reached out to Prussia for aid. The Prussian King, seeing a chance, bargained and won the ultimate price. Massive amounts of the Empire were signed into Prussion control, in exchange for an army to fight for peace.
The Prussian army had been one of the best in the world, and they supplemented their regiments with professional Swiss mercenaries – a people who had perfected the art of war since the middle ages. It took two short years, and when the Empire was reclaimed, the Prussians simply kept going. Weary and worn from years of famine and unrest, most of Europe simply broke. France declared defeat, as did Greece and Austria. Spain fought to a standstill, and Prussian forces were content with the parts of the country that they had gained. By 1830, the newly formed Austria-Prussian Empire held and controlled half of the continent, making its capitol at Berlin.
The War for Peace, as it became known, made the Empire the ruling power in Europe, surpassing even the might of Britain. Over the next two decades, technological innovation changed the lives of millions of citizens. Prussian engineering helped perfect the modern airship, opening up avenues of trade that had only been dreamt of a short time before.
Now, almost sixty years later, the new century was looming, and the world waited to see what it would bring. At least, those who saw the greater picture waited to see what it would bring. The common man labored on much as before, with thought only for tomorrow and the week after. Mellira thanked the stars that she had picked the sky over a husband and a farm. There was too much to see to risk missing it all because of a baby or two. Another gust of wind blew rain in her face, and she shook her head to clear her mind. She went aft to check on the captain.