Nearly there now, folks – but if you want to catch up, you can check out part one here.
After a few hours of heaving parts together, the aerovelocipede was finally beginning to take shape. Of course, Nadeen had to endure more than a little frustration as Number Six struggled to comprehend the basic instructions she programmed into him, but they were getting there.
The vehicle was crude, there was no doubt, but at least it might work. The dense foliage on the ground here wasn’t helping anyone, so the plan had been to essentially pair a pedal-powered propeller system with an ether-filled balloon to keep everything aloft. It required plenty of tweaking on the way, with the tough, strong metal of the former airship taking the place of the lighter materials Nadeen’s original plan called for.
While she’d initially toyed with using wood from surrounding trees, in the end they had simply fashioned a second, larger balloon, in the hope that it would be able to support the pedal framework, landing feet, propeller and seats. The ether pumps took up a little too much space, but at least the automaton could solely focus on keeping them running – it wasn’t as if he’d need room to move anything but his arms.
The less said about trying to set up the steering though, the better. Nadeen had lost her temper with Number Six’s interpretation of her instructions during this delicate stage more than once. Each time she found herself eventually yelling at him to stop and that she’d do it herself. As her annoyance grew, she’d have another attempt at feeding the delicate rods connecting the handle bars to the rear paddles through a series of eyelets. Each time she’d have to give up, as her right hand simply wasn’t moving enough to make it possible. And each time she’d find herself begrudgingly apologising to Number Six, and letting him have another attempt.
Now, finally, the craft was nearing completion. Yes, they would be exposed to the elements and enemy fire, but it was a risk Nadeen felt she had to take; the Commandant and his marauding party were getting further away all the time.
She checked the aerovelocipede over as Number Six took care of screwing the last part on. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it might work.
She put the automaton in his spot next to the ether pumps and set him to work. The switches in the automaton’s small body were set to a combination she’d used every day on the airship. She could practically set him up in her sleep, despite his quirks. Mercifully, he set to work manning the pumps right away, with them set on their side to exploit his tendency to repeatedly move his arms in a quarter-circle arc in front of him.
She felt the landing feet leave the ground as the craft began to rise into the air. It was a gradual ascent, almost painfully so, but it wasn’t long before they were at their maximum height. The combination of limited ether supplies in the pump, relatively small balloons, and heavy weight underneath, meant they weren’t climbing for long. It was barely enough to clear the trees. Even then, they’d have to work to try and avoid being snagged in some of the taller branches.
Nadeen’s mind raced for another possibility. A tweak she could make to optimise the vehicle.
No, this wasn’t the time. Rivière was well on his way to Nam Định and there’d been enough bloodshed already. This would have to do.
She placed her goggles over her eyes. Her right forearm was gingerly placed along the handlebar to avoid putting too much weight on the laceration on her hand, while still keeping some control. She started pedalling.
Instantly, she wished she’d put more oil on the mechanism. It creaked and groaned under the sheer weight of its own movement, and moving the pedals took an enormous amount of effort.
After a few seconds, once the mechanism built up some momentum, it stopped being quite as much of a chore. It was still hard enough work to persuade Nadeen to utter a silent prayer to all the deities she could remember; the last thing she needed right now were strong headwinds.
The main thing, for now, was that they were moving, and heading in the direction Rivière’s flotilla had been going in when she last saw it.
The whole contraption creaked and rocked as it went. A strong breeze struck them from the side, momentarily threatening to unbalance them. It was enough to force Nadeen to steer into it, a violent wrenching at the handlebars correcting her course, but reminding her the laceration on her hand was still trying to heal. In spite of this, she was grateful for the extra weight; if the craft had been lighter, they’d have been in trouble.
Staying on course was reasonably easy. She had a good idea of the direction Rivière had gone in from the crash site. Now she was up here, the view was good enough for her to keep her bearings. Even then, by sheer virtue of the fact she was devoting her full attention to pedalling, rather than sticking to the confines of the engine room, it was easy to concentrate on maintaining a heading. She just had to pick a point in the distance, and keep pedalling towards it.
And so they pressed on.
The still of dawn slowly gave way to a bright day and, with it, the sounds of a multitude of birds in the trees below. As daylight offered a better view, and her attention was firmly fixed on the area in front of her, she let herself enjoy the scenery once again. The striking greens of the trees and plants only occasionally interrupted by rooftops or rocky outcroppings. The blues and green-greys of the Red River flashed through the foliage from time to time as it split and wove its way towards the sea.
From time to time she’d let herself get distracted by trying to will the fingers on her right hand to move. Eventually they started to obey her commands more and more willingly, but each movement was accompanied by a sharp pain that took a long while to die down.
Being in the engine room all day, she’d got used to the oppressive heat of the area, but the glaring sun, combined with blood loss and a lack of sleep, took a toll. Reluctant to stop, she pointed the aerovelocipede towards a small collection of buildings peeking out through a sizeable break in the trees. She flicked a couple of Number Six’s switches and he slowed the pumps to a stop. They started to drop out of the sky.
The landing itself was a little wobbly, and Nadeen was certainly weaker than she’d thought. She managed to get the vehicle safely to the ground before falling off her seat, the hours of pedalling burning in her legs. She lie on her back, staring straight back up at the sky and breathing hard.
Several minutes passed by before she heaved herself up and staggered towards the buildings. She didn’t bother bringing Number Six, and just left him staring at the pumps, immobile. Nobody could take off without knowing how to set the switches correctly anyway.
It wasn’t long before she came across an old woman on the outskirts of the tiny, deserted village. She barely knew any of the local language, but she felt she’d managed to pull off rather convincing gestures to signify food and water.
The woman was carrying something in a bundle of fabric, shifting the weight in her arms while greeting Nadeen’s gestures with a blank expression. She seemed more curious about Nadeen’s sudden appearance here than anything else. Nadeen couldn’t tell if it was because she was French, and clearly not from anywhere around here, or if the crash and subsequent journey had taken more of a toll on her than she’d thought. Certainly, she could feel all sorts of cuts, bruises and strains throb and ache as she stood there in the morning heat.
Nadeen mumbled what she’d taken as the local word for “please” while repeating her mimes.
Eventually, somehow, she’d managed to get something to eat and drink. She didn’t realise how much she needed it until she had it in front of her. The woman’s home was small, but pleasant, and gave Nadeen a welcome respite from weeks of being sat in the metal confines of the airship’s engine room.
She was good at her job, and she loved working with machinery, but she had to admit she was falling in love with the rustic charm of this place. After all, the air here wasn’t thick with fumes and dust, and she could hear the wind moving through the leaves rather than the relentless, industrial grind of metal-on-metal. She was surprised at how much she enjoyed the quit calm of it all.
What if she just stayed here? Let the powers-that-be deal with Rivière. Besides, Nadeen couldn’t shake the feeling that if he’d lived, he’d be doing exactly the same thing her automaton was doing right now. Perhaps it was always the Commandant’s plan to conquer the Red River Delta by force. Who knows, perhaps after Nam Định he wanted to take the ports to the north? Set up a base in the mountains? Invade China?
Of course, what was to say that the real Rivière wouldn’t have just followed orders; negotiated safe passage for messengers through the Red River Delta, then returned to Hanoi.
She couldn’t second guess it all now. The fact remained that, no matter how much she wanted to disappear, her creation was on the move and most likely looking for a fight.
Any way she looked at it, this was still her mess to clean up.
After she ate, Nadeen inspected her hand. It had seen much, much better days, but at least it had stopped bleeding. Her host even helped clean the wound and provided a new bandage when she saw the grubby, bloodied state of the old one.
Nadeen wanted to ask where everyone else was. The language barrier had already proven to be a problem, so she thought better of it. Instead, she thanked the lady profusely, or rather she kept saying the word she hoped was the local equivalent of thank you. The lady smiled and nodded.
Ready to go, Nadeen pointed in the direction she was going to head in.
“Nam Định?” she queried.
The lady looked in the direction she was pointing. She shook her head and pointed off in a completely different direction, saying something incomprehensible at length.
Nadeen had been sure she’d been heading the right way. She had to have been. She pointed the same way the lady was pointing and repeated her question. This time she got a smile and a nod.
Within a few minutes, Nadeen was in the air again.
The aerovelocipede drifted in the light breeze as Nadeen scanned the horizon for any clue that might help her. Would the lady have known she’d flown in? What if she was just providing the direction of the nearest road, rather than how to get there as the crow flies? Perhaps she was just pointing out where there’d be more medical help. Perhaps it was where everyone else in the village had gone.
Nadeen was acutely aware that each minute she sat here, the further away Rivière and his flotilla of hijacked ships would be getting. She momentarily toyed with landing again and trying to get the lady to clarify, but that would most likely just waste more time.
With a sigh, she flopped her arms and forehead forward onto the handlebars. As she gazed down at the clearing below her feet, she tried to collect her thoughts.
She instinctively turned to Number Six to check he was running ok. To her surprise, the noise wasn’t coming from anything he was doing with the pumps. She heard it again.
A trio of small Chinese ships rose up from the trees a long way away, but in roughly the same direction the lady had pointed. Their propulsion systems occasionally hissing as they gained altitude.
It must be Rivière. He must have put down to resupply. Maybe he picked up recruits from the village, or possibly even fought them?
Nadeen’s mind raced as she heaved to get the pedals spinning. What if it wasn’t the Commandant? What if the lady was just pointing out a Chinese base, thinking she’d defected? Was the lady trying to get her captured?
She told herself to calm down. There were all sorts of possibilities. And right now they didn’t really matter. If it was Rivière, good. If it wasn’t, chances are they’d be on his trail too and all she’d have to do was follow them.
She pointed her aerovelocipede in their direction.