Tonkin: Taster? Part One? Prelude?

No, I don’t know what this story is. Or where it’ll go. But I had the idea and thought I’d run with it a bit. You might see more of it pop up again in the future (lucky you).

Special thanks to Gemma Bergomi for the picture of Nadeen.

Nadeen finally stirred as the automaton nudged her foot again for the upteenth time.

She rolled over and glared at the machine, its rattling collection of cogs and pistons working hard behind a fixed, metallic expression.

Much as she wanted to hurl her pillow at it, she couldn’t really be too annoyed with Number Six. He was just doing what he’d been told. Besides, given the constant din of steam purges, huge moving parts and the grind of metal, there’s no way she’d hear an alarm clock down here.

She carefully eased herself out of her hammock, hitting her head on a low pipe. If she could redesign this vessel, the first thing she’d add would be more room for a decent bunk.

But no, she was here for one job and one job alone – keep the automatons running. It was them that did the hard work of keeping this airship flying. It was a round-the-clock job for them, and unlike people, they wouldn’t tire or need breaks. But quite often they might need adjusting or cajoling into working a little harder.

And Nadeen was good at it. A quick inspection told her that Number Three would need a new latitude arrestor, and the servos on Number Eight’s manipulation arm could probably do with a tweak. Considering they’d been working for several weeks straight now and had to handle some turbulence in the night, it wasn’t bad going at all.

Number Six was still nudging at the spot where her foot was, even though she’d been up an hour or more already. She’d get right onto fixing him after breakfast.

As members of the French Air Fleet, they were supposed to be helping merchants and Catholic missionaries in the area. Or at least, that was how this all started. Her country had taken Cochinchina a few years ago now. Cambodia had asked to become a French protectorate. Now this move to the north, through Annam and towards this area people were already quietly calling Tonkin, was supposedly part of some big plan to made a “unified Indochina” or something. It just seemed like a land grab to Nadeen.

Of course, nobody really came down here to keep her up to date on the latest news on the situation. Not that it really mattered to her. Those sorts of machinations were more for the Napoleons of the world anyway. She was just following orders and keeping those automatons running.

She didn’t mind it much. She enjoyed her own company, and didn’t have time for fools; especially the ones on the decks above after a number of weeks in the air without any female company. No, she was much happier down here. The automatons never talked back or said anything stupid. If you were around them enough, they even seemed to develop little personalities of their own.

Or maybe she’d been in the engine room too long.

She was trying to make Number Six do anything besides rotated towards and away from her bunk repeatedly when she heard an odd noise. The engine room was home to all sorts of odd noises, but you get used to them. This was different. Shrill.

It was a whistle.

Her initial thought was that there was some kind of leak in one of the conductors. As she neared them to check, she heard it again. It was coming from a deck above.

It was a call to arms.

This was meant to be a peaceful mission. They’d go, land, the big wigs would smooth things over with the locals, Nadeen would get some fresh air, and the whole business would start again. That’s just how the last few weeks had been.

Then Nadeen remembered how Commandant Rivière had stormed Hanoi without warning or permission. How the government had somehow turned it into a victory for France. Now they were permitting him to move back towards the south a little to “secure lines of communication” with Cohinchina through the Red River Delta. Nadeen wondered if it was so they could keep an eye on the Commandant; Heaven forbid he ever strain on the leash too much. 

It was easy to see how their manoeuvres probably annoyed someone locally though.

She scrambled for one of the few portholes, placed her goggles over her eyes and flung it open. The hot air whipped at her face as she squinted at the horizon. She could see something approaching, low against the land. Her hand fumbled for the telescope she always kept on the bench nearby. Number Seven handed it to her.

Leaning it against the bottom of the porthole to keep it at least as steady as the ship, she scanned the area. Several smaller airships were closing in on them from the north.

They were flying Chinese colours.

She should have stayed in bed.




  1. I love the little character Nadeen. Beautifully created. Great story and want more. You’ve kept us hanging Richard! Write more.


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