[For these fine people. Thanks for asking my friends :), I’m having a blast writing this stuff]
Issac held his bag tightly as the plane climbed steadily up into the clouds. He had been assured that the pilots of the Third Fleet were some of the best in the empire and even if not the odds of an accident aboard this plane, or the airship were quite slim. The new airships were designed with plenty of failsafes, they would never touch the ground once they were up, unless forced there by enemy fire. How fortunate, Issac thought, that he would be aboard a ship meant to fly in hostile territory. He grimaced as the plane shook, but in the next moment he was bathed in light as the plane broke through the clouds. The pilot shouted something back which Issac didn’t hear over the roar of the wind, but it caused him to open his eyes. Above them, hovering serenely, was an airship. Not a clunky, bloated airship bristling with gun batteries, this was a Cheshire class stealth airship. All sleek lines and slimmed down. Fast and quiet.
And Issac would be stuck on it while it flew into unfriendly skies. He felt nauseous.
As Issac took his luggage from the cargo compartment of the plane, he took a brief look around the hanger. There were four other planes in the hanger, being attended by ruff looking engineers who gave Issac narrow-eyed looks and would nudge one another and mutter. No doubt wondering who he was and what he was doing here. Issac wondered the same. He longed for his office in London. The smell of ink and paper and the clacking of telegraphs in the background. The code zipping in and out of his office, out into the air and back again to be decoded. Build it up, send it out; bring it in, break it down. The rhythm was soothing. This hanger smelled of engine grease and sweat, and the only sound he could hear was the irregular sputtering of an unruly engine.
“Professor Quirke?” called a woman, a pilot by dress, from the bulkhead.
“Yes! Here!” Issac called over, waving, only to stop when he realized what a fool he must look. He gathered his luggage quickly, and hurried over to meet the woman. She eyed his suitcases and satchel, and raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“You are aware we have weight restrictions on this boat, Professor?”
“Oh, I was told I would be staying awhile so I packed accordingly. Papers, pens, a few machines I’ll need, changes of clothes…” the woman held up her hand to stop him.
“Leave it here in any case, Professor. I’m taking you up to the bridge,” she said.
“Oh? So soon? I haven’t even settled in yet.”
“No time, Professor,” she took his shoulder and gave him a gentle shove down the corridor, “Skymarshal insists on talking to all crew personally when they come aboard. And the Admiral wants a word before he leaves.”
“The Admiral?” Issac was confused, “Which Admiral?”
The woman laughed, “Only one that matters to this ship. You’ll get it sooner or later.”
The woman tossed his luggage to the side of the corridor, and began marching him towards the command deck. She grabbed a passing crewman and direct him to handle Issac’s luggage, but the crewman didn’t seem to appreciate how delicate some of the equipment was. Before Issac could say anything, he was marched along by his guide.
They came to the bridge, where the skymarshall stood before the forward window. She was talking to an older gentleman in a tailored suit. The discussion seemed to be getting mildly heated.
“Skymarshal. I’ve got the professor here,” said Issac’s guide with a quick salute. The skymarshal and gentlemen turned to him.
“Thank you Colonel,” said the skymarshal flatly, “Stay around will you, I’ll need a word with you after the professor.”
Issac stood before the skymarshal. She was not a physically imposing woman. She was tall but rail thin and looked as if a sufficient breeze would cause her some difficulty. Still, she had a quality that made Issac fidgit. She looked at him flatly, tilting her head slightly as she examined him in a way that made him feel very small.
“Oh be nice, Victoria,” the gentleman said smiling, “You’ll make the poor lad cry.”
The colonel behind Issac laughed sharply, and Issac blushed. The skymarshal simply nodded, straightened up and sighed.
“I understand you’re quite the code-breaker in London, Professor Quirke,” she said.
“I…I wouldn’t want to boast, but…” Issac began.
“I understand you’ve cracked German diplomatic encryption,” she said cutting him off.
“Well it was a team effort, to be truthful, and they’ll surely change their codes sooner rather than later,” Issac explained.
“Could you falsify verification of a German envoy by Berlin?” she asked him.
“I…suppose it would be possible. Knowing what’s being said isn’t quite the same as impersonating a German operator, but…”
“Excellent. You have four days. I expected a progress report in two.”
“Four days? You can’t be serious,” Issac balked in disbelief.
“Dead serious, Professor. Details are on your desk in your cabin,” she turned away from him, “Dismissed.”
Issac stood bolted to the deck, completely certain he was out of his depth. He was brought about by the gentleman giving him a whack on the arm.
“Come along young man. I should like to pick your brain on my way to the hanger,” he smiled, but Issac noted that the smile did not fully reach his eyes. He followed the gentleman out in a daze, leaving the colonel and skymarshal on the command deck. The colonel came up to stand beside the skymarshal and chuckled.
“First impressions, Jackson?” Skymarshal Victoria Winthrop asked, still staring out the window.
“Shy little man. If it weren’t a pun I’d call him squirrely,” Lieutenant Colonel Elizabeth Jackson said with a small smile.
The barest hint of a smile flashed across Victoria’s face.
“You and O’Reilly are ready to go?” Victoria asked.
“Paint is drying on my plane now,” Beth crossed her arms, “and O’Reilly is practically giddy about all of this.”
Victoria allowed her smile to show this time. “Go ahead and take the helm, Colonel Jackson. Prepare to take us SSE.”
Issac stumbled after the older man as he briskly strode through the corridor of the ship.
“I’m hoping to see good things from this squadron, Proffessor Quirke,” he said, “Skymarshal Winthrop is a fantastic skipper, and her XO (while a bit unprofessional in my humble opinion) may be the best pilot in the Third Fleet. First Fleet takes all the best of course, and they’ve would have snatched her up in a heartbeat were it not for all the citations.”
“Ci…Citations, sir?” Issac was so confused. He had no idea who this man was.
“Oh yes. Nothing serious, but there are quite a few. Drunkenness, out carousing with enlisted crew, indecency, minor insubordination…the list goes on. Still, nothing but the best for this ship and squadron. You might call it a pet project. Skymarshal Winthrop would argue it’s hers, but management (myself) will always take the credit in the end.”
“Um sir, about that…” Issac started softly.
“And of course the ship herself is fresh off the line. The Cheshire class. A wonderful design. This one hasn’t been officially named yet, as it technically isn’t on the lists yet. May never be if this mission goes badly of course.”
“B…badly, sir?” Issac stammered.
“You were told you’d be flying into enemy territory, Issac (May I call you Issac?),” the gentleman said looking back for a moment, “There is always the risk.”
“But…this is a stealth ship isn’t it?”
“The plan is stealth, Issac, but the best laid plans of mice and men…,” they came out of the corridor into the hanger, where the ship Issac had come up on was prepped to leave. The pilot was standing by the plane, and holding a coat for the gentleman. He slipped into it, and took a pair of goggles out of the coat’s pocket. “I wish you the best of luck, Issac.”
“But, sir, I still don’t understand why I’m here. I’m only an analyst,” Issac said desperately.
“Only an analyst? As I understand it, MI has placed responsibility for cracking German diplomatic code mostly on your shoulders.”
“Well most of the work was already done, sir.”
“Nonsense. I have every confidence in your abilities. As I do with every member of this crew.”
“But, sir!” Issac cried, “I can’t…”
“Issac,” the smile was gone from the gentleman’s face, “I needed a cryptographer for this mission, I chose you, and that is the end of it. You have a job, and you will do it. Is that clear?”
Issac swallowed and lowered his gaze, “Yes, sir.”
“Good,” the smile was back, “now I’m off. Back to London for me. I do wish you the best of luck, Professor Quirke.”
The man climbed into the plane with surprising ease for a man of his years. Issac shook himself just in time to ask before the plane’s engine kicked on.
“Um, sir, I’m afraid I didn’t actually catch your name.”
The old man’s smile widened, “I’m The Admiral, Issac. Just The Admiral.”