Tonkin: Part Four

Want to wade in from the start? Don’t fret – you can do so here.

Nadeen sat in the dark, with only the humming of the engine to keep her company. The rhythm of the noises would usually be soothing, but they were of no comfort today. Occasionally one of the automatons would make something clang as they went about their work. The sharp, metallic noise making Nadeen jump and snapping her to reality.

She hoped her revived mechanical Commandant automaton would send a clear signal to Claremont, the ship’s second in command. Somehow show him that all was not well, and the orders could be given to withdraw while saving face in front of the Chinese.

That was, assuming Rivière’s dead face hadn’t locked up or fallen off on his way to the upper decks.

She had regretted creating that abomination the second he left the engine room. Now he was upstairs, taking part in the negotiations with the top brass from the small flotilla that had intercepted them.

Would the people upstairs really have not believed Rivière had died of a heart attack?

She turned the question over and over in her head, each time coming to the same conclusion. Nobody would believe he’d just dropped dead like that.

But of course, nobody would believe she’d turned his corpse into an unholy blend of flesh and machine either.

No, one thing was certain. The ship had to stay in the air, or they’d all die. Surely.

She had the most important job on the ship, keeping them afloat. And nobody knew it. Or appreciated it.

She heard a shout from one of the decks above her.

A quick peek over the bottom of the porthole confirmed her neighbour on the other ship was no longer at his post, manning the cannon aimed at the engine room. She craned her head out and looked up, careful not to get stuck this time.

Poor old Number Six wouldn’t be around to help her now.

She saw a person swing from her ship to the Chinese one pulled alongside. She couldn’t see who in the gloom. Just as she was coming back inside, a shot rang out.

A dozen or so other people swung over in pursuit. The unmistakable silhouette of Commandant Rivière led the way, firing at something or someone on the Chinese ship.

She’d be lying to herself if she said there was a plan behind all this really. She’d panicked and just reacted in the way she thought best.

But if she did have a plan for anything beyond keeping them flying and perhaps getting them safely and peacefully away from the Chinese, this wasn’t in it.

Her creation was meant to be a temporary fix. A plaster for the situation.

He wasn’t meant to attack the Chinese.

As she hopped down from the porthole, the echo of dozens more shots rang out, mingling with the clash of blades.

She raced through the various configurations in her head. Had she wired him up wrong?

No, she couldn’t have. The mechanical body was only meant to help keep the head and the brain alive. Well… as alive as to be expected after a couple of hours of death. It should just be doing what the brain told it to do, and give it a boost to nullify any lasting effects from the lack of oxygen while he was deceased.

By now, she was poring over a notebook on her workbench in the centre of the engine room. Maybe she’d got a calculation wrong.

How could she stop him?

She glanced around. All the automatons were keeping the ship in place, exactly as instructed. She could focus on this problem.

She needed to stop Rivière. This was a mistake. A panicked experiment that had gone wrong.

She tried to banish the thought in the back of her mind. People were dying because she’d tried to cover up a death.

There was a yell near the bow porthole. She didn’t recognise the language, but it was some kind of Chinese dialect.

Her neighbour was back.

A tremendous explosion echoed around the engine room as the cannon went off at near point-blank range. A gaping hole was left in the side of the airship where the porthole had been as the cannonball tore through the iron pillars and timing mechanisms that helped control the pumps. Number Four had its arm torn clean off as sparks and metal shards flew everywhere. Number Two was carried by the cannonball through the far wall of the engine room and out into the night sky.

Nadeen took two steps towards the trail of destruction torn through the engine room when another cannon she never knew about, further behind her towards the ship’s stern, fired. It left a similar scar through the engine room. The blast rocked the ship, sending her crashing to her knees.

She watched as cogs, flywheels and dozens of moving parts came loose and shot off in all sorts of different directions, showering the engine room with sparks and debris.

This airship was supposed to be built for battle. How had it been crippled so easily? Of course, the first cannon was able to virtually fire directly into the ship through the porthole. It was a weak point, but the enemy would need a hell of a lot of luck on their side to hit it in any ranged battle.

Unless they were able to come to a halt right next to it…

What if her revived Commandant had seen it when he was down here? He’d seen the immediate danger and had acted to neutralise it.

What if this was her creation working perfectly as a military strategist?

As she scrambled to her feet and swiped at her notebook, the whole ship slipped sideways and down, into a nosedive. She was thrown under her workbench.

While her stomach did somersaults, she watched as her beloved engine tore itself apart. The other automatons either fell out the ship’s gaping holes or were shredded by dangerous bits of machinery. Her entire career was falling apart before her eyes.

Steam hissed as pipelines and pumps ruptured. Ether popped and crackled, threatening to ignite. The force of the fall was pushing Nadeen further back against the bulkhead the table was bolted to.

Shoving her notebook into a pocket, she scrambled to reach for the nearest, largest, piece of metal. The direction and speed of the fall meant that plenty of debris was sliding past her. A bouncing cog ricocheted off the floor, threatening to crush her arm. She finally managed to get a grip on a mangled chunk of iron and place it in over the front of the table. She held it in place, trying desperately to make sure her fingers didn’t get crushed in the process.

Within moments, she felt the lurching impact of the ship’s nose drill into the ground. The metal floor buckled and groaned as the entire weight of the rest of the ship bore down on it.

A few seconds of being thrown around like a rag doll and it was over.

Nadeen blinked back into existence staring at the underside of the table.

She coughed the smoke out of her lungs as she kicked the metal cover free from her shelter.

The fingers on her right hand had a had a deep laceration where she’d been holding on. The cut ran across the base of each digit in a line and had seemingly threatened to sever them. Wincing, she held her arm close to her chest as she carefully picked her way out of the ship’s wreckage, blood dripping down her arm.

The hole where the bow porthole used to be opened immediately onto trees. The crashed ship having cut a scar right through the area. Dozens of tiny fires illuminated the path the vessel had taken.

Outside, she could see the battle raging in the distance. The ships were lit up, with clouds of smoke and explosions dotting the scene, helping highlight it against the night sky.

The descent must have been relatively slow to have drifted this far. The Chinese cannons must have just destroyed the ether and steam pumps and ruptured the supply lines, rather than taking out the propellers or tearing the balloon.

Essentially, the balloon keeping the ship afloat had deflated under its armoured shell, rather than burst.

That was probably why Nadeen had survived.

But it was no consolation. She had failed. The ship had fallen out of the sky.

She’d had one job and failed.

The balloon wobbled and waved in the light breeze as the last of the steam and ether mix left leaked out the system. It finally flopped down behind the remains of the ship, into the scar, the various armoured plates that had protected it clattering loudly to the floor.

Nadeen staggered as a light-headedness got the better of her. She was covered in cuts and bruises. She found the sharpest bit of metal she could find and used it to cut off a part of the sleeve on her right hand. It was hard work, given how she wasn’t naturally left handed, but she eventually managed to get the laceration bandaged up.

At least she could still make her fingers make the smallest of movements, even if she had nearly lost them.

She slumped down onto a tree trunk for a moment. There was nobody around. Anyone else left on the ship’s upper decks must have been thrown from it during the crash. Even from here she could see signs of bodies littering the ground or stuck in the trees, stretching back into the darkness of the scar behind the ship.

The dull noises of cannon fire could still be heard as the battle kept moving further away from her. Rivière and the remaining crew must have captured at least one of the Chinese ships to still be fighting like that.

A dull pain pulsated in her right hand as she watched them.

This was her fault. She’d failed.

Would Rivière stop after this fight was over? When he was alive he’d made no secret of his desire to press north. It seemed her mechanical aids might have just heightened his will to fight. Maybe his ability too.

Another ship started to fall from the sky. More lives lost.

She sighed, resigning herself to watch.


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