Nobody likes jumping in when you’re pretty much halfway through the story. But don’t worry, you can start here if you’re only just joining us.
Nadeen needed a plan.
Sitting here and watching the havoc unfold in the distance wasn’t helping anyone.
As best as she could tell, Rivière and his collection of hijacked Chinese vessels had won the fight. Three ships, including the one she’d seen her reanimated Commandant swing on to before the crash, were closing ranks and disappearing over the horizon. The last enemy was falling from the sky, disappearing behind the tops of the trees without a sound.
She’d secretly hoped that the Chinese would win once the fighting had intensified up above. It would just be written off as an embarrassing defeat, and kept quiet by the French leaders who didn’t want the world to know how much chaos Rivière had caused on the new protectorate of Tonkin without their orders.
But he’d triumphed and was now continuing on his way.
He was her creation. Now it was time to take responsibility and stop him.
She heaved herself up off the log she was sat on and looked around at the crash site. What the cannon fire hadn’t wrecked the crash certainly had. Various small fires still burned all around her, barely lighting the way along the scar in the trees from where the ship had first hit the ground.
The hissing and crackling of the various leaking fluids just after the crash had stopped. There were no more sparks firing as metal ground against metal, now the engine had wound down to a stop. Nadeen felt confident that the wreck wasn’t about to burst into flames as she headed back inside.
The engine room was a mess. The two gaping holes blown through by cannon fire had put paid to most of the vital mechanisms for keeping the airship’s balloon inflated and, therefore, keeping them afloat. A couple of the ether containers were still intact, but most of the moving parts had spun out of control during the attack and tore themselves apart as they clashed against each other. If she did some digging she might be able to salvage some parts.
She took a deep breath and headed up to the next deck.
As she’d suspected, nobody was around. She carefully picked her way through the debris of the fight. Hammocks, ruined and useless cannons, gunpowder and all manner of tree branches, dirt, wood splinters and mangled pieces of metal littered the space. She saw some scattered pools of blood and body parts. This deck must have borne the brunt of the enemy fire once the fight started.
She couldn’t remember the names of any of the men serving up here. The grief she felt stemmed from knowing that she must have provided the spark that set this powder keg off, rather than any personal sense of loss regarding anyone in particular.
They were boorish, loud, crude and either took issue with a young woman working in the engine room or tried to take advantage of her. She’d made it clear on more than one occasion that she wasn’t to be trifled with. Her near court-martial for the threats and fighting had made Rivière ensure the only contact the crew had with the engine room was through the communication tube. It was more for the protection of the crew from her than the other way round, but even then, it took some time before the system was used for anything more constructive than crass comments and cat calls.
No, she wouldn’t mourn anyone from up here.
But she would mourn that glorious engine. After she’d realised how hard it would be to prove herself here, she’d set about pouring everything into her work. It was in no small way down to her that the ship had the fearsome reputation it had throughout the French Navy.
She found her way to a ladder and moved up to the top deck.
The gentle breeze helped carry the scent of burning wood and oil away from the crash. This deck was open to the sky and had clearly been where the negotiations between the French and Chinese, on behalf of the locals of Tonkin, had been. A table had been bolted to the floor long ago, and still stood in place. The risk up here wasn’t so much from a concentration of enemy fire or moving parts, it was from the wind and the drop.
As such, there wasn’t much left to see. It had, for the most part, all been blown off the ship on their way down.
From here, she could still just about make out the dots of Rivière’s new flotilla nearing the horizon.
She headed back down to the engine room and dragged a couple of the ether containers and steam valves outside. Her right hand was still practically useless, and it wasn’t long before her left arm was burning with the effort.
She headed a little way down the scar, looking for more parts that may be of use. There were a few bits, perhaps, but they’d have to wait. She approached the airship’s large, deflated balloon. It lay across the edge of the scar, covering a number of trees just to the side of it. The armour plating sheets that had protected the top and sides of the balloon might come in handy for something, seeing as they’d survived the crash rather well.
Using the sharp metal shard she’d used to fashion a bandage, she set about cutting various lines and sections of fabric from the balloon’s exposed underbelly. It wasn’t long before she’d made herself a ragged backpack, while an armour plate helped make a handy sled. She loaded up with some of the more useful-looking and intact parts and dragged them over the join the collection of bits from the engine room.
She repeated this process several times, moving gradually further and further back down the scar. Each time she’d be forced to trudge past bodies and parts of bodies. Grizzly reminders of the former crew, and of her failure.
Towards the beginning of the scar, where the ship had first touched the trees, she was practically working in darkness, thanks to the lack of flaming debris. Nonetheless, something glinted on the ground. As she leaned down to grab it, she could see it was a book.
This was some kind of record of the negotiations with Rivière.
How he’d explained earlier incursions as being for the good of the local people. How he wanted to stop the British gaining a foothold in the area, and how avoiding that would be in everyone’s interest. The Chinese vowed not to let Tonkin fall into French hands, while Rivière claimed they were forcing his hand. He had to protect French interests and citizens, especially if rumours of preparations for a Chinese attack on Hanoi were true.
There was a mention of heading on to Nam Định. That trip, like this, would be to negotiate assurances that French lines of communication between Hanoi and Cochinchina were secure through the Red River Delta. It was only a short distance away to the north east.
The meeting’s minutes stopped there, as they agreed to call a recess and continue talks in the morning. That must have been when he’d tried to contact me, thought Nadeen. Then he came down to the engine room to give me the order to warm up the engine for the trip to Nam Định the next day.
As she shoved the book into her bag, she heard an odd knocking noise, somewhere in the darkened trees.
She crouched low into the shadows and listened.
It was close, disturbing lots of foliage.
She gripped her make-shift knife in her left hand and carefully made her way into the trees, taking care to circle around the area the noise was coming from as best as she could.
She had no idea what creatures might come out at night here.
At least it was dark. That meant she had a chance of surprising it, as long as she was careful and quiet.
Unfortunately, she was so used to the constant din of the engine room, she struggled to be subtle. In fact, there was never any room for subtlety when it came to dealing with engines of that size, and her boots and injury did her no favours.
Soon, she decided to simply crash through the foliage in the hope of making enough noise to scare whatever was out here away.
She had only stamped a few paces when she heard the knocking noise again, directly above her head.
There, tangled up in a net of vines a couple of feet above her, and glinting in the dull light from the crash site, was Number Six.
He was repeating the same back and forth movement he’d perfected when trying to wake Nadeen every morning, each swing striking a nearby tree trunk. It was a signal for help.
With a huge smile, Nadeen set about trying to cut him down. She told him how relieved she was to see him, even though she knew he wouldn’t respond.
Before long, he was following her around the crash site, gathering parts Nadeen pointed out for him. She had a diagram in her notebook, sketched some weeks ago.
It had been one of the rare times when the ship had landed between sorties. She was exploring Hanoi when she started wishing she had a way to explore the wider area quickly. A small vehicle to take to the skies and cover sizeable distances in a series of short hops.
By the time she was back on the ship with nothing to do between orders, she was coming up with plans for a sort of motorised ‘aero-velocipede’.
Given her lack of resources, her injured hand and limited time, the plan might need some further tweaking, but she had a rough idea of what she was aiming for. She had no idea if it would be fast enough to catch up to Commandant Rivière, but she had to try.
She inspected the collection of imperfect parts piled before her. Number Six stood nearby, ready.
It was time to get to work.