Victoria stood on the bridge looking at the Alps coming into view below her as the ship skimmed the underbelly of the grey clouds.
“Range?” She queried the navigator, estimating 50 miles in her head.
“45 miles over land, ma’am,” the navigator responded. Close enough. Mills, Walter, Lieutenant, Vic reminded herself. She was committed to knowing the names of every man and woman aboard her ship. She had selected them herself of course, but she needed to remember the names. It was important. She had served on ships where the commanding officer hadn’t bothered to learn the names of their subordinates. Vic found it disgusting. She had no qualms about ordering men and women into battle, but to do so without bothering to remember their names seemed monstrous to her.
Victoria opened a small box and removed a monoggle. She turned a few small dials on the side, and slipped it over her right eye. In the hazy red light of the miniaturized projector inside the eye-piece, she was given a read out of data from her ship’s difference engine.
“44.5 miles over land to target; Drop Point- 14.5 miles; Estimated Time to Drop Point Arrival: 8 minutes.”
“Get me the hangar,” she ordered, and the comms officer (Milicent Burrows, she remembered) connected her. Victoria checked the time again and then spoke into the horn shaped receiver. “This is the Skymarshal: time to launch is less than eight minutes. Status?”
There was a pause, then the voice of the senior mechanic (Nathanson, Vic recalled, but couldn’t pin down his first name off hand) came back to her.
“Final prep on Colonel Jackson’s craft is nearly complete, Ma’am. Bombardier O’Reilly is just bringing in the last of his ordinance. The others are all set.”
“Deploy Anavior and Barrington on reconnaissance.”
A moment later, Victoria saw two planes zip into view from beneath the command deck and break off into recon maneuvers. Victoria watched them disappear amongst the clouds, frowning all the while. There should be nothing else in the air here, she knew that, but she couldn’t shake a feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. That she had made a mistake. Only a fool believed they never made a mistake, but this feeling was stronger than simple worry. This mission had already stumbled once, at the very first footfall, and that couldn’t bode well for the rest of it. And about that stumble: it had been rather unusual hadn’t it? MI in Milan had never had any problems until now. That was the entire reason she had chosen it, as it was very unlikely to have any attention on it while they made their pick up. Yet, in a single day, Milan’s operations were compromised.
Though Vic supposed it would only take one very unlucky or clumsy day to take a den of spies out of play. Perhaps she was worrying too much over it. Coincidences did happen after all, despite her own cultivated sense of paranoia.
She and Beth had already found a…’serviceable’ replacement, so things could proceed well enough. She made a small adjustment to the monoggle’s focus and began silently counting down to the drop point.
Elizabeth ran the last checks on her plane as O’Reilly finally finished loading the last of the bombs. She tightened the straps about her shoulders and took a deep breath to clear her head. Whatever was going on in London, whatever they intended to do, today’s operation wouldn’t be affected certainly.
“Oi? Ya Reday,” bellowed O’Reilly as he climbed on the wing, fastening himself to the frame, “Ya sem a tad far gon.”
“Just looking forward to blowing a hole in a mountain, Bombardier,” she gave him a wicked smile and O’Reilly gave a hearty laugh. He flashed a thumb up to her once secured, and she fired up the engine. As her plane roared to life, she felt her soul become lighter. Whatever the hell else she was involved in, this was what she lived for.
She flashed a thumb to the officer on the hanger deck, Nathanson, who doubled as chief mechanic (or the other way around), and he gave her the all clear sign.
Her plane was unhooked, and she felt her guts cartwheel as her plane dropped down the ramp to the open mouth of the hanger. O’Reilly hooted and hollered like a madman (which Beth supposed was apt) as they left the solid surface of the hanger deck, and were suddenly over empty air.
And now came her favorite part.
The ship suddenly, and rapidly, attempted to reunite with the earth. As per Sir Newton’s popular theory.
Airborne Division regulations were very clear about the proper egress from the flight deck of an airship. Had Beth been following those regulations, the fall of her plane would have lasted the merest fraction of a second, and then she would have flown safely and smoothly out from under the ship, clear of the ventilated steam of the engines.
Beth found that method rather dull, and would have none of it.
And so they fell. For only a few seconds, but they were certainly falling. O’Reilly alternating between wildly laughing and screaming his lungs out as they did.
Beth threw open the throttle and pulled the plane up, just in time to pass through the edges of the cloud of charged steam billowing out of the ship. Not only was the steam a pleasant warmth in the cold air of the Alps that was whipping past her face, but the charge in the alchemically altered moisture tingled and made every hair on her body stand on end. It was unlike any other sensation in all god’s creation. Hot and cold; wet and instantly blown dry; with a tickling up and down her spine. She laughed along with with the mad Bombardier as she took the plane into a tight turn, heading for their target.
Victoria watched Beth’s wild maneuvers from the bridge, allowing the faintest hint of a smile before turning to Ms. Burrows at the comms station once again.
“Retune the wireless for maximum sensitivity and begin sweeping the band,” she ordered, “If a sparrow coughs loudly within range of our instruments I want it routed to my personal display. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ms. Burrows said briskly, and Vic watched as her eye-piece’s projector change to show the comms station’s findings, including a short word sent back from Anavior, stating that the skies seemed empty save for Victoria’s ship.
So far so good, Vic thought. She checked her timepiece: just after noon. 0sc4r should be down in crew quarters right now, having a chat.
Issac felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake. For the briefest of moments, he believed that he’d been having terrible dreams, and his landlady, Mrs. Tillman, was waking him for breakfast. When he opened his eyes however, he saw that the hand on his shoulder was made of metal. He sat up in a start, finding that he was indeed still aboard the airship and had fallen asleep at his desk. 0sc4r, the skymarshal’s automata, stood before him. It said something, but for some reason Issac was having trouble hearing. After a moment, Issac remembered the wax in his ears, and removed it, feeling rather foolish.
“My apologies for the *click* Intrusion, *click* Sir,” the metal man said bowing its head slightly, “But I *click* Knocked *click* and you did not *click* respond.”
“Yes, I’m terribly sorry,” Issac said embarrassed, “I…the Bombardier gave me this wax you see. I needed some quiet to work.”
“So I *click* Gathered,” the machine seemed to glance over Issac’s notes, “I *click* see you are *click* Working *click* on the report for the *click* Skymarshal.”
“Oh yes of course. I will have a full report ready for her before she even sits down to supper. I confess; I’ve become rather excited about the whole scheme. Naturally I’d prefer if I wasn’t so close to the danger while it was carried out.”
Issac saw the automata’s stance change. It was a widely known fact that automata did not possess minds capable of complex human emotion, but there were many cases automata performing a sort of emotional mimicry. It occurred to Issac that perhaps this machine was attempting to look uncomfortable.
“I am *click* Afraid *click* I am the bearer of *click* Bad News *click* on that front *click* Professor.”
“…How so?” Issac asked slowly.
“I am *click* made to believe *click* that you speak *click* German *click* and an amount of *click* Italian.”