13. The forlorn hope, given the narrowest of chances, determine to give it all they've got to disarm the weapon - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Paul tried to compress himself in the smallest space possible in the forward navigation capsule, acutely conscious of the unfamiliar weight of the parachute pack on his shoulders and the armoury of tools slung around his waist and hips, watching through the glass as inch by perilous inch the airship took itself into a matched course and speed to that of the oblivious blimp below them. Surely, surely the other must have seen their approach, for all their care and the scant protection of the already westering sun at their back?
But no, it seemed: onwards they crept, matching velocities with such precision that at length they and the ‘ship below seemed the only immobile things in the gliding heavens.
The American engineer (he had told Paul to call him Dex, but Paul’s inherent shyness baulked at that, given the American’s genius status and the shortness of their acquaintance) was abruptly in the hatchway.
“Time for us to go,” he said. “Hope you’ve wrapped up - it’s going to be kinda chilly out there.”
Paul, suddenly unable to trust his voice, nodded. The American looked at him questioningly for a second and gave him a quick, shy smile.
“You’ll do just fine,” he said. “Just stick close behind me and make sure your friend the Viscount doesn’t press any buttons on any machinery he doesn’t recognise. In fact, make that: stop him from touching any machinery whatsoever once we get on board, period.”
Paul vented a quick snort of laughter. It was true, Jerry had been a nightmare on the voyage so far; wandering aimlessly through the cabin, humming tunelessly and twiddling with things at random until Greenwood, who had been huddled in a glassy, almost trace-like state since they had taken off, had jerked suddenly upright and offered to punch his lights out if he didn’t stop it. It had taken only a couple of words from the American - he had barely bothered to turn his head round to utter them - to reduce both of them to half-ashamed silence. Paul had wondered - for he would, one day, have to exercise authority himself - how one achieved not merely the ability to do it, but to gauge when not to. For surely the American had known that each of them needed to deal with the tension in his own way, at least until those ways collided.
The American had not, it seemed, exaggerated his opinion of the weather. The wind howled in through their clothes as if they’d been so much tissue paper. The hatchway was suddenly like the mouth of Hell, and the void outside unthinkable.
“Dearborn -” Paul said, suddenly irresolute - how could a chance so slender ever succeed? How could they have thought it might? Surely he should say something to inhibit the inevitable disaster of this preposterous attempt?
But before he could utter a word the American shrugged, muttering something that was blown away on the wind, tested his harness - and was suddenly gone through the hatch, leaving behind only the whine of the cable running out from the drum under the sure professional hand of the winchman.
The spooling of cable stopped. There was a pause, lengthening into an eon - a single tug on the line, in response to which the winchman let it out another six feet or so - and then there were two pronounced jerks on the cable.
The winchman, obviously no longer having to struggle, turned the drum in reverse, and the empty harness came slowly up. Paul found Jerry, apparently conceding him the seniority (or simply, a stray part of his brain thought cynically, assessing accurately that Paul’s nerve might not hold as long as the others’), holding it out to him. He clicked it on with suddenly clumsy hands; tested the security of the buckles and, without allowing himself time to think, stepped out through the hatch into empty air, aware even as he did so of the faintest pressure of what might have been an encouraging boot not-quite-connecting with his backside.
It was colder than he had believed possible, even inside the ‘ship. The wind whistled in his ears, and the bulk of the enemy ship below rushed up to meet him. He stumbled on landing, felt, belatedly, the pressure through his sternum as the winchman braked, had a sudden fear he would be swept from his perilous perch into the void, grabbed at something by his feet - and realised he was clinging to the severed edge of a hole slashed roughly through the reinforced cloth forming the outer skin of the blimp. He just had sense to lower himself through it, and as he did found his boots being caught and guided into position. His hands followed; blessedly, he was out of the wind, and had something to cling onto. He remembered, belatedly, his instructions, and gave two jerks on the cable, only releasing the harness a split second before the winchman started to rewind the drum.
There was a sudden small flicker of light; Dearborn had lit his flashlight. They were both crouched on some species of gantry just inside the roof of the airship; the helium bags hung below, eeriely bloated and sinister in the gloom. He inspected Paul’s face and nodded, as if satisfied.
“Better start climbing down to the bottom,” he said with authority. “I’ll see the others inside.”
He gestured. At his feet was a rope dangling down into the innards of the airship; he must have been carrying it wound round his body. Paul nodded, too overwrought for words, caught the rope between wrists and ankles, and started to swarm down it, like far away days in the sunlit gymnasium at school, he supposed, and yet so dramatically unlike, forcing one’s passage between the narrow aperture between the inflated bags, the rough rope skinning one’s palms, and all the time the oppressive darkness. From above there came odd creaks and the whine of the winch machinery, and once a suppressed burst of swearing in Jerry’s unmistakeable voice, quickly hushed. And then there was another weight on the rope above him and it jerked like a live thing so he feared to fall, but then, thank God, there was something solid beneath his feet, and nothing to do but collapse to the floor of the compartment, and wait for the other five to join him, and for their true danger to begin.