14. More from the forlorn hope - Book Four - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Behind them the confused sounds of the struggle died away. Jerry and his friends had piled in upon the surprisingly small handful of airship crew they had found in the rear part of the nacelle with all the advantages of surprise, youth, and the conviction that their strength was as the strength of ten because their cause was just. Paul, slightly to his shame, had not had to throw a punch in anger before Dearborn had beckoned him away from the fray, down one of the side passages towards the control centre of the ship.
“Stop right where you are.”
The voice was cool, cultivated and somehow chilling in its very ordinariness. It might, Paul thought, very easily have been one of his dons. Indeed when the man looked up from the control panel over which he had been bending Paul found himself gazing dumbfounded into the face of a very distinguished scientist indeed; a Cambridge professor of physics, hinted to have been unlucky to have missed a Nobel prize the previous year.
And, from the change in the professor’s face, it would appear he had been recognised too. Paul was unsurprised; that lecture at the Royal Society had been only just before the start of Michaelmas term, and he’d not scrupled to pull strings to be seated in the front row.
He had, too ventured on a question, and thus made himself the target for a riposte remarkable not merely for its wit and appositeness, but for a depth of smiling, pitiless savagery that in no other sphere but the academic could be deemed acceptable in a public forum.
That memory drove him forward across the threshold, ahead of Dearborn.
“So,” he said in a rush, lest his nerve fail him, “ah - it seems you have discovered the merits of applied science after all, Professor Lindow.”
He saw Lindow’s hand begin to come up - his paralysed mind tried, but failed to take in the significance of the evil, snub-nosed weapon in his hand - and then he felt himself being roughly caught from behind and thrown down and aside as there was a huge roaring and a sharp flash of agony in his leg.
Paul’s face was inches from the deck. He could hear voices above his head, confused shouting, the noise of a struggle. Something hit the deck hard; there was the sharp crack of an explosion - God only knew where the bullet went - and the dropped revolver slid along the decking a few inches from Paul’s nose. He put out a shaky hand and stopped it.
The right leg of Paul’s fatigues was already sticky with drying blood, and the pool continued to spread slowly: despite the throbbing agony he supposed that the stray bullet which must have broken his leg had fortunately missed any of the major blood-vessels.
He raised his head cautiously. The tableau that met him had a curious air of suspended animation. The American, holding an odd, futuristic weapon, had Lindow covered. Lindow, however, had his hand stretched behind him and was holding some lever which protruded out from the machine that was bolted into the control centre.
“I think,” Lindow said, a cold sneer infusing his voice, “that this represents what your compatriots would no doubt describe as a Mexican standoff.”
Dearborn shrugged. “I daresay. If they spent too much time at the movies, that is. I’d prefer to call it an awkward interruption, myself.”
Lindow’s face contracted in an incredulous expression.
“What? Have you any conception of what would happen if you forced me to release the deadman lever?”
“I guess I just might, at that. Having come across your particular brand of crazed logic a time or some before now.” The gentle irony in Dearborn’s voice warmed Paul like a stiff brandy. It occurred to Paul that on his own ground - the panelled rooms of the Royal Society, with a respectful audience hanging on his every word - Lindow looked a bigger man than he did now against this incongruous backdrop of death-and-glory, pulp-fiction heroics. Dearborn, here, had the unselfconscious assurance of a man on his native turf.
Lindow’s eyebrows went up, pointed with patrician disdain.
“You do? So you know that if my hand were to slip - just enough to let the lever to come up and complete the deadman circuit - the weapon would implode - turn itself into our own personal sun - and everything for ten or more miles around us would be boiled away into nothingness in the blink of an eye?”
Dearborn’s voice never altered.
“Well, it sure sounds like a godawful mess, and a plumb backwards way of fixing up a deadman circuit. But like I said; nothing I wouldn’t have expected from your type of mind.”
“My type of mind? What could you possibly know about that? “
Dearborn gestured encouragingly with the end of his weapon. “Suppose you tell me about it? After all, we aren’t going anywhere - least, anywhere you haven’t planned.”
Lindow sneered. “You never spoke a truer word. Every command circuit on board answers only to my voice, and mine alone.”
“Really? The men must sure hope that you don’t catch a heavy cold while you’re airborne. But doubtless you’ve put fail safes into your design to deal with that sort of thing -?”
Belatedly Paul realised what the American was doing. Paul was within three feet of the control centre and had his hand on a gun, and yet Lindow had overlooked him - appeared, in fact, wholly unconscious of any threat he might represent - so focussed was he on the sheer vulgarity of having to defend not only his choice of field, but the design options he had made.
And Dearborn was bent on making sure that continued to be so. Even if Lindow killed him for it.
Seize the day a voice said inside his head, and Paul was suddenly in motion. Lindow was still turning to face him as the gun went off, at near point blank range, and, despite the agony of his damaged leg, Paul was on top of the control panel before the weight of the dying man’s hand could release the lever.
The pressure on the deadman switch must have been constant, near enough, for nothing happened: the relief and pain combined were so overwhelming for a moment that black spots circled on the edge of Paul’s vision, and he fought against dizziness.
The Professor’s body, the blood darkening and spreading across his torso from the bullet wound, fell away behind him.
“Nicely done,” Dearborn said, squatting down in front of the evil gadget, popping a wafer of gum in his mouth and removing a front panel with a few quick, economical movements. “Just don’t you let yourself get distracted now. Not until I’ve had the chance to disarm this sucker - oh, Jeez!”
Paul’s head jerked up at his tone.
“Guess - what was he called, Lindow? - couldn’t resist the temptation to tinker with the design; up the power to weight ratio a little, looks like. Jeez! It was on the edge of its envelope for airborne operation as it was. Firing it would have torn it apart, and the ship with it. Theoreticians!” His tone made it sound rather like an obscenity.
“Can you do anything about it?”
Paul was rather proud of the steady way in which his voice came out; almost as though this was the sort of question he asked every day, and the current circumstances as routine as cycling up St Giles to a coaching. Dearborn sounded, he thought, rather surprised to be asked.
“The design? Sure. Lindow wasn’t as clever as he thought he was. Makes disarming it somewhat more problematic, though. Take a bit longer. So just keep your hand right there - nice and steady - if you don’t mind, while I get right down to it.”
Given Lindow’s graphic description of the white-hot boil of fury that releasing the deadman switch would unleash, it was hardly as though Paul felt he had any option to doing as instructed. It was something to have something useful to do, after all; something to take his mind off the agony in his leg, and the fact that he had just killed a man.
Oh, and that in a few minutes, come what may, he would be dead himself. That, too.
Whether the American engineer (who had spared a second to drop a comforting pat on his shoulder, but whose hands were now moving deftly among the mass of wiring in the innards of the machine) disarmed the infernal gadget, or not, he was done for. He tried, fiercely, to will his mind to accept that as reality. It would only be the method of his passing about which there was any choice.
As ye shall answer for it on the dreadful day of judgment the priest had abjured at Alicia Lansbury’s wedding two months ago. Paul had been struck by the phrase then; the priest had pronounced it with a sort of gloomy relish, almost as though he expected half the congregation had been in two minds about whether it would be quite the done thing to mention the groom’s four wives in Baluchistan, and his mad mistress in the attic, and needed all the exhortation they could get; which just proved, he’d joked with Gherkins afterwards, how little the priest knew about George Faulkner-Dunbar, who had to be one of the most painfully earnest men in existence, and surely quite the least likely to have a dark and hidden secret -
Though not, it occurred to him abruptly, as unlikely as that Paul Shuttleworth, the bespectacled, bookish heir to a glittering merchant princedom, tipped by everyone who knew him for a First, known in his set as “the Ghost of Bodley” for his habit of being found day or night in some cranny of Oxford’s libraries, should be about to sacrifice his life in a fantastic death or glory mission, trying to foil the plans of a cabal of treasonous, world-encompassing would-be regicides. Or that the same Paul Shuttleworth had just killed a man, consciously and deliberately. His hand on the deadman switch was sticky with drying blood.
“Have you - have you ever killed anyone?” Paul blurted. Dearborn didn’t look up; his hands continued their swift, intricate task.
“Uh, you mean directly or indirectly?”
His soft drawl was conversational, reassuringly prosaic. His question, however, was baffling.
“I’m sorry? Indirectly?”
The American shrugged. “Well, take this thing just for a start. I designed it. It goes off, who’ll have killed everyone in the blast zone? Think about that one, ‘cause I sure am. You want to be an engineer? Well, engineers kill more than generals. Even if you stick to bridges, odds are they’ll take tanks over them sooner rather than later.”
It was the longest speech Paul had heard Dearborn make. Out of the maze of conflicting ideas it flung up he seized upon one.
“You designed it?”
His natural politeness stopped him from continuing, but the American had, it seemed, supplied the missing question for himself.
“You mean, how did it wind up in the hands of a bunch of homicidal megalomaniac crazies?” His mouth was twisted in a wry grimace. “I guess; as the result of a long series of misjudgements and bad calls. Not all of them mine.” His hands never faltered in their work, Paul noted, nor did he look up, but Paul sensed that he, too, was conscious of his proximity to the judgment seat, and that his own ghosts pressed close upon his heels.
The American cut two wires, and gave a small noise of satisfaction.
“If your hand’s starting to cramp on that switch, you can let it go now,” he said. “I’ve disconnected the deadman circuit. Still need to disarm a couple more, but we’re on our way.”
Paul looked cautiously down at his hand, which seemed to have been locked in position for a hundred years.
Dearborn’s lips quirked; after a second Paul realised he was suppressing a grin. And, he thought belatedly, it was colossal cheek, he supposed, querying a senior engineer about the workings of his own design.
His voice had an amused note, too.
“You sure think like an engineer. Well done. Never take anyone’s word for it when it’s system-critical. You should do well, if we get out of this one OK.”
And that brought reality home with a violent blow beneath the solar plexus.
“I won’t be getting out of here,” he said flatly. “That first round Lindow let off? It went mostly through my parachute pack. Saved my skin, I suppose, but -“
He shrugged. The silk of his parachute was doubtless shredded ribbons, even if, with his leg, he could have made it to the exit he supposed Jerry and the others had, by now, jumped through.
The American raised his brows.
“Mind if I take a look?”
Awkwardly, Paul shifted his position so Dearborn could inspect the damage for himself, biting down on his lip to suppress an exclamation of pain as the movement caught his injured leg.
“Take it steady, now,” Dearborn said. “No need to mess about with that leg any more than you need. Landing on it’s going to be nasty enough.”
“But I said -“
The American’s jaws moved, as he continued to chew on his gum. It somehow gave him an air of immovable resolution.
“Sure you did. I heard you. And you aren’t going to jump with that ‘chute, I agree with you there, too.”
Paul felt the straps being unbuckled as his parachute was removed. The sound of the pack hitting the deck was jarring, left him feeling exposed.
“What do you weigh, about 160?”
Dimly, Paul tried to do the calculation. He was 11 stone 2, so that meant - that meant -
He nodded weakly.
“Near enough. I suppose.”
“Well, mine’s rated for well over our combined weight. Due to an assumption that if I have to evacuate from anywhere, odds I’ll be having to drag some irreplaceable bit of kit with me. And in my book ‘irreplaceable’ tends to mean ‘bulky’. Hence -“
He slipped a set of buckles and plaques which were attached to his own pack, and pulled out an assortment of webbing straps. “I’d better warn you, I’ve never tried this system with a human being before, and I wouldn’t like to go bail for how it’s going to play out. You could end up with a few broken ribs, and, like I said, the landing’s going to be a doozie - if you could contrive to faint on impact, I would - but there’s no reason we shouldn’t both get out of here alive. The emergency escape hatch is over behind that panel, so you won’t even have to crawl far.”
Paul noticed, now he was looking for it, the symbols stencilled on the white-painted metal. So even Lindow’s faint, spurious glamour as a man on a suicide mission was fake; if they hadn’t burst in on him when they did, he’d have taken his escape. His own ‘chute must be somewhere around here, then - if only Paul could summon up the energy to look for it, and trust that the dead lunatic had packed it properly -
He’d abandoned the notion by the time Dearborn spoke again.
“All this, of course, is assuming that Lindow hasn’t left any more surprises in the guts of this thing. We’re getting too close to Balmoral, and if someone doesn’t start trying to shoot us down soon, I’ll be worrying.”
He turned his attention back to finishing his business with the wiring. Paul slumped against the weapon’s casing, and tried to come to terms with the existence of hope.
He couldn’t have said how long he’d been there when a ringing, tinny voice came at full volume through the loudspeaker on the bulkhead. Dearborn’s head went sharply up at the first syllable; Paul couldn’t have said whether it was terror or something else fuelling the sharp blaze of emotion which lit his face.
“…entering prohibited airspace. Your intentions will be presumed hostile unless you acknowledge this signal verbally, or, if you are unable to transmit, by making a deviation of not less than 50 degrees to starboard from your current heading. Over.”
“Yes, Joe, and that’s just ducky,” the American sighed. “If we had some ham we could have ham and eggs if only we had some eggs. Try giving me an alternative that doesn’t involve me having to get round a control panel attuned to the voice commands of a dead mad scientist, why don’t you?”
He started to unroll the webbing straps, and gestured to Paul to inch his way towards the escape hatch. The tinny voice broke in again.
“I say again; your intentions will be presumed hostile unless you take steps to respond verbally or by course deviation. You will receive no further warning. If you do not respond you will be brought down. Over.”
Dearborn cocked his head on one side, his eyes bright.
“That’s interesting,” he observed, as he started to pass the various straps and buckles around Paul’s body, and to pull them tight. Personally, Paul thought “interesting” was not the word he would have chosen to describe the sensation of being told the aircraft he was in was about to be brought down, particularly by a member of his own side, but pride if nothing else impelled him to assume an air of calm as he said, “Interesting?” as the American, having pulled the last buckle tight, started on the escape hatch latches.
The escape hatch, apparently was being recalcitrant - Paul prayed it was not another part of the airship set up to recognise Lindow’s voice commands alone. Without looking up from his struggles, Dearborn said,
“Well, Joe said ‘brought down’ not “shot down”. I wonder if that means he’s going to -“
The tinny voice broke through again, this time with a level of urgency which sounded almost akin to panic.
“Dex! If you’re still aboard, then get the hell out of there any way you can, now. And that’s an order. Skycaptain out.”
“Someone’s been checking parachutes for Legion insignia,” the American observed, setting his shoulder to the escape hatch and giving it a violent shove. A sudden blast of cold air shot into the cabin as it swung clear.
“Hold on tight,” Dearborn yelled, and they were out, out and falling, and it was bitterly cold, and the webbing straps around his body were biting into him, and surely would tear through him like a wire through cheese and God, oh God, had that parachute jammed because it was surely taking forever to open, and they were both going to die, dashed into atoms on the turreted granite monstrosity he could see dimly outlined below him -
There was a rush of silk and suddenly the pace of life slowed right down. The American yelled something which Paul couldn’t catch, but he nodded and grinned like an idiot, because the chute had opened, and it looked like he was going to live after all.
And then they struck.
Red-hot skewers of pain shot up through his body from his mangled leg. He shuddered, his breath coming in harsh gasps, the tiny bit of his mind which was still capable of rational thought reflecting how sound Dearborn’s advice to faint on impact had been and wondering how one brought off something like that to order.
Dearborn, who had done what he could to cushion the landing, slipped the webbing straps that had saved Paul’s life, and rolled away, leaving Paul lying face down on soaking, icy gravel. He had thought that with the enormous throbbing agony which was his leg he would not have minded or even noticed the pinpricks of discomfort from the gravel, but he was wrong, it seemed. His body had the capacity to improvise an almost infinite set of variations on the theme of pain, and he was able to experience them all at once.
He was abruptly conscious that the toes of a pair of immaculately polished black shoes had materialised in front of his swimming vision. He pushed himself up on his forearms, to try to take in more of their owner. The effort was a step too far; abruptly a wave of nausea overtook him and - the shoes’ polish was suddenly no longer quite so immaculate.
Despite the surrounding racket he could hear a sharply indrawn breath from somewhere behind him.
“Would you be so good as to tell me precisely what is going on?”
The voice - that of the shoes’ owner, he presumed - was hesitant to the point of stuttering, and curiously familiar. Paul, with infinite caution this time, started slowly to lever himself up into a less ungraceful position.
“I am most awfully sorry, sir,” he was beginning, when his attention was abruptly arrested.
Not only was the slight, fairish man in immaculate - well, make that previously immaculate - formal dress pointing a double-barrelled shotgun right at him, but his features were queasily familiar. In fact, Paul had a few dozen excellent representations of them in his pockets right now.
He gulped, and His Royal Highness King George VI, Emperor of India, Defender of the Faith, took a rather hurried step backwards.
“We - I - they - sir - that is -” he began, when Dearborn snapped,
“Get back from the end of the terrace, now - uh, Your Majesty. Right now!”
There was an enormous amount of noise going on - shouting, banging, the roar of plane engines and something that sounded like gunfire, but it was all oddly muffled, as though someone had wrapped his ears in cotton wool. The sky was blacked out as the dark bulk of the airship loomed above them - it was going to crash down in bloody ruin upon them, and no matter that they’d disarmed the weapon, it would all have been for nothing -
And then a plane roared across the sky, turning onto a knife-edge as it carved a path through the desperately narrow gap between the stone wall above them and the airship and - for a moment Paul thought he was hallucinating - looped a cable round the topmost turret, paying it out at incredible speed, wrapping the other end round the nacelle of the airship just below the balloon.
Gravity, friction and inertia warred for a perilous moment, and then the nacelle began, inevitably, to break away from the airframe above it, and the balloon, released of its retarding weight, gained lumbering height and lifted above the battlements. The nacelle dropped away, behind the turret, there was a deafening roar and the castle was silhouetted against a bright bloom of flame.
The small crowd that had gathered on the terrace stampeded frantically away, someone scooping him up into a sort of rough fireman’s lift as they went, but this time, mercifully, he did faint.