PL05 - Message in a (Sky Blue) Bottle

by Haro James

Copyright© 2019 by Haro James

Science Fiction Story: Bunny Boyce was happy to serve in a unit where aeros didn't crash: they had landing incidents. On a New Year's test flight, both his attitude and luck began to change. ~ 4,000 words.

Tags: Steampunk  

Bunny Boyce knew it was done for: the deafening shriek of shearing metal, the odd whiff of hydrogen gas, the deck slewing forward, the ear-popping plunge told him so. He had been through this once before, and knew it would happen again, in a ‘coals to Newcastle, trouble to the X’ kind of way. Boyce hated trouble, but had applied twice to join the Royal Air Regiment’s Experimental Unit.

While the Regiment prided itself on ‘every member a fighter, from cook to colonel’, the ‘X’ was an anomaly. Members of the ‘X’ consistently put themselves in harm’s way without the benefit of a weapon in hand. They single-mindedly sought to develop, test and deliver the best fighting aeroships in the world. That meant innovation and taking calculated risks. Boyce had a great deal of respect for that term. It was the difference between life and death. He had the tattoo to prove it.

Any man who earned an LI tattoo was due a life time of respect in airship circles. But there was no saying how long such a life in service might be. But that could be expected in a service where aeros didn’t crash: they had landing incidents. Six years seemed to be the going rate. Boyce was satisfied to have that, plus a couple more. Nonetheless, he hated trouble.

Boyce was the senior gasman aboard the experimental HMA Auctor. The aero was the platform for a number of innovations, none related to lift on this trip. Untroubled by anything more complicated than run-of-the-mill gas management, he took only a passing interest in the new skin. Up close, it shimmered in the sunlight of Montevideo Field. At a quarter mile, the aero’s outline was somewhat fuzzy. Three miles out, the Auctor was nearly impossible to see. He couldn’t tell how they did it, nor was he really concerned. So long as it didn’t affect lift, the professors and officers were welcome to sort it out.

Boyce had flown with this captain before, a solid officer who put a great deal of thought into the risks he took. Boyce was also pleased to be working again with Freddy Carson, the chief of motors. As gasmen formed a tight community, he knew his own assistant well, having trained him. In addition to the sparse test flight crew, the Auctor carried a brace of twigs; recently posted officer-cadets, on their first graduate flights. The pair were stuck in the command car for now, with only a quick walk through Engineering and Load divisions.

The three hour shakedown had begun with an unexpectedly hard landward blow. At first, it was counted as useful in testing adverse weather performance. But when the buffeting let up, Boyce looked over from his pressure gauges to see Carson frowning over a chart and clacking a slide numerator. The motorman’s face told Boyce there might not be turns enough in the spring-motors to get them home.

“Chief?”

“Not good, Bunny. That blow pushed us pretty far north of where we should be. An hour ago, we passed over a river that no one recognized. Navigator says the Rio Parana is the only one in the region with such a long straight east-west run, which puts us well over Paraguay. A wonder we didn’t draw fire over Asuncion. Maybe we ran wide of it. Who knows? The best we could do was to split compass bearings and estimate speed by timing passage over ground features.” He squinted at Boyce, then said “I figured we had no problems with loft, but suppose I should ask.”

“We’re good for gas, chief. Make a deal? I’ll keep us aloft, and you get us home.” They laughed before turning back to their control boards. The Auctor swung south towards the distant coast.

First Officer Crane appeared at Boyce’s station, saying the captain planned to run out the spring-drives, reserving just enough turns for final maneuvers. When those were gone, they would vent gas to achieve the best uncontrolled landing possible. Crane glanced involuntarily at the gasman’s tattooed forearm, knowing Boyce had done this before. Was there was anything he needed from the bridge?

Boyce considered briefly. He and his assistant could quickly vent three cels without help. The others would take longer. Carson volunteered his gang, saying they would have no regular duties when the springs wound down. Boyce nodded and said that would do. Then by way of encouragement he told the officer that they would focus as much on landing as possible, while minimizing the incident side of things. The F.O. stared at him, trying to determine if he was joking or not. Without a word, he left. Carson grinned as he returned to his controls.

The prevailing coastward winds had reasserted themselves with the storm’s passing. Any help getting them to Montevideo was welcome. The trick would be to stay off the River Plate’s south shore. As a non-operations flight, the Auctor was stripped of most standard equipment – including anything heavier than side arms. The BA crowd would welcome a skirmish on such terms. It turned out no one needed to worry about a confrontation with the Argentines.

As the Auctor got underway, the pilot reported a shimmy at speeds over thirty knots. He suspected something amiss with the dorsal fin, likely from the severe lateral stresses it took from the winds. The captain ordered full slow and a descent to two hundred feet. The sailmaker and mates would inspect for skeletal integrity. The sail party was making ready at the topside hatch when the dorsal girder tore loose at Ring 9. As the forward half swung up and through the skin, the aft portion pivoted down, tearing a gascel, slicing the next one in half and holing a third. The escaping hydrogen in the third cel vibrated a flap of fabric, making for a hanger-size raspberry. Boyce was too busy trying to recover a semblance of buoyancy and trim to notice.

The unsupported midships sagged, causing the bow and stern to fold upwards. Several spare spring power units - weighing three hundred pounds each - slid down the tilting deck, through bulkheads, sweeping equipment, fixtures and crewmen before them. The discs punched through at the fold in the deck, to trail debris that glittered like metallic confetti in the midday brightness.

Individual members of the airframe, stressed past their limits, began to snap. Flying struts and flailing stays pierced the remaining cels. So sudden, so complete the loss of hydrogen, there was neither explosion or fire. The Auctor simply fell out of the sky.

Boyce and one of the twigs survived. Nothing broken, but plenty of abrasions, bruises and sprains. Given Boyce’s experience, he was grateful to have survived. The twig, whose name was Yarrow, fumbled about in a fog of shock at the disaster and his brush with death. They spent the next three days burying those who could be found. Then they set up camp to await rescue.

A serviceable shelter was cobbled up from pieces of wreckage. Water was all around, and safe when boiled. Food was also abundant. Little bush pigs, deer and fish made up the bulk of their diet, thanks to Yarrow. He had grown up a shooter, honed his skills during regimental training and turned out to be a natural stalker.

Technically, as an officer cadet, Yarrow should be in charge of their drastically reduced crew. Both recognized his experience was woefully inadequate for the challenges they faced. Boyce took special care to formulate directions as requests and suggestions. Yarrow took the same care to avoid saying things that were palatably dim-witted. Their collaborative fiction worked surprisingly well.

One day, eating deer kabobs, Yarrow ventured into personal territory. “Hope you don’t mind, Mr. Boyce. Why do they call you Bunny?”

Boyce looked up from his skewer. “I was christened Rothgar. When I was a mite, about the only fight I had, I didn’t know the rules. The other boy was beating the snot out of me, and I figured he was going to finish me. I got scared, and flailed about like a windmill. I got a lucky hit in, and he dropped to his hands and knees. I didn’t know the ‘rules’ said I should let him get up. So I whacked him cross the back of the neck. The rabbit chop they call it. Didn’t kill him, but hurt him pretty bad. None of those kids ever tried me again. They called me Bunny ever since. You can too, if you like. No fight required, sir.”

Over other meals Boyce talked about his career as a Lift Gas Specialist. He recalled his childhood in a London baking family. At nine, he nearly set an outbuilding on fire when the hot air balloon he released over the oven chimney settled on a shingle roof. As he grew older, he demonstrated such an affinity for gas sciences that his father gave up hopes of him following the family trade. All that was capped by his military training and experience prior to joining the Regiment. “I love the gas, you know. Cage it up in those bags, and it sings to me, canary-like. If we had the right gear, I could put us back in the air in no time.”

“What would you need, Bunny?”

“Get a Gramme Damnme to run a Botto and we’re half way there. I’m no sailmaker, but I could rig a gascel to carry us out.” He pursed his lips, and went on in a more serious tone. “But we don’t have either dynamo or water splitter. And without gas, an envelope is useless. Too bad.”

“What’s a Gramme Damnme? Sorry, I only have a course book education, so the shorthand completely escapes me. F.O. Crane had assigned me to bear a hand under Mr. Carson for the home leg. Didn’t get the chance.”

Boyce told him it was what power tenders called the Gramme electrical generator. Typically used in the field to power Botto electrolysis setups that extracted hydrogen from water. The tenders called them that because the generator often arced. When they did, the shocks were usually followed by ‘Gramme Damnme!’

Six days later, Yarrow returned from a hunt dragging what Boyce first thought were two small, limbless tree trunks. He had gone several miles west to hunt: it being more and more difficult to find game close to the camp. Skirting a small bog, he spotted a pair of the Auctor’s reserve hydrogen cylinders standing upright in the muck. The shorter fall had kept them intact. One had leaked out through a hairline crack, but the other was fully charged. “Anywhere near enough to put us in the air, Bunny?”

Boyce calculated what they had, how big an envelop they could loft and what they needed. Every one of the numbers was against them. As he ran the numbers a third time, Yarrow threw his hands up and said “Well, Bunny, what do we do? We’re a hundred miles from anywhere, and where ever we can hike out to won’t be friendly. If we do try, regulations require us to destroy everything of use. If we run into a dead-end out there, there is nothing to come back to. We’re tied here, and I don’t see the Regiment coming round that mountain.”

“Hill, really. Just looks like a mountain ‘cause nothing as tall around.” Boyce said absently. He sat quietly in the shade a while. “When we was kids, afore our teens, my sister and me went down to Selsey Bill every summer to stay with cousins. Come dead of winter, they’d come stay with us in London. A swap, see? Anyway, down at the Bill, we sometimes tossed bottles into the sea from Gallows Point. When we learned the currents could take those bottles as far as Calais and maybe up the Holland coast, we started tucking funny messages in them. Mostly along the line of ‘Kiss my arse, Frenchie’ or ‘Send me a shilling - or a guilder if you don’t got real money’. That kind of thing.” He stood looking, in an unfocused manner, at the wreckage.

The young officer was perplexed. “You want to float messages down to Montevideo? I don’t even know which direction the streams flow. Maybe the Paraguay or the Parana, or neither. Odds wouldn’t be all that good anyway. Anyone ever come to kiss your behind? Or send you a shilling?”

Bunny grinned. “No. But then we never put our names or house number down. For this, I think we need to.” He pulled a scrap of the hull fabric closer. He rubbed it between his fingers, then looked back at the officer.

“I wonder how it would work to make up a bladder out of gascel fabric, fill it and set it adrift from the heights there. I recall the pilot saying the prevailing seasonals blow down coast.” His brow wrinkled as he thought more. “If we could work this stuff in, it would tell them true what ship we’re from. I’m not sure exactly where we are to tell them, nor how to not spill the beans to the either the Argentines or Brazilians.”

Yarrow looked thoughtful. “I might. Let me think on this one, Bunny.” The puzzle occupied him for the rest of the day. He spent an hour rooting about in the ruins of the navigation station until he emerged with a chart of the region. He stopped only once, to yell across the clearing “Cerro Pero, Bunny. It’s Cerro Pero. And you were right about nothing else around being that tall. We’re half way there!”

At their evening meal, he waved a scrap of paper at Boyce. “Here’s what we need to tell them: how many we are, and who, and where. To authenticate it, we write the message on a scrap of that skin, tied to the bladder. And here’s what we send so that no one but authorized sorts can figure it.” He handed the paper to the gasman.

Bunny read it, frowned, and read again. He passed it back. “Are you sure?”

The paper led off with “Husha husha and dub dub; but the butcher fell out.”: they ‘all fell down’ and with the butcher falling out, there were two men left.

It continued with “In my shoes, you would feel as old as the heart of a bone, and be there too”: only his cadet classmates knew his nickname of Michael Marrow, now twenty five years old. As in twenty-five degrees.

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