[For these fine people. Thanks for asking my friends :), I’m having a blast writing this stuff]
Operation Caesar’s Folly
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.”
The Admiral’s visit had disrupted Victoria’s schedule, but she had ensured the departure from England was timely, and by early that same evening her airship was slipping quietly over demilitarized France towards the Alps.
0sc4r filled her cup to 1/8th an inch from the rim precisely, as he always did, while the senior staff took their seats at the table. Space on an airship was limited of course, but a briefing room was invaluable for precise operations such as this, so the Chesire class had been designed with a suitable, if somewhat cramped, area to fill that need. She brought the tea up to her nose and inhaled deeply, catching the faint scent of flowers. Fresh and inviting. 0sc4r, her batman, leaned in to whisper something to her in his hiss-and-click accent.
“I reminded the *click* Quartermaster *click* of your preference for *click* Jasmine Oolong *click* before we left, *click* Ma’am *click*. I hope you find it too your liking.”
“Thank you, 0sc4r,” she said as she took a sip. It was a clean, refreshing taste that quenched the thirst while exciting the appetite. 0sc4r knew her tastes well. The automaton had been in her family for nearly thirty years, and had been Victoria’s batman for the last five.
Jackson, to her right, being of “less sophisticated” taste, sipped on a coffee of some sort. The Professor, a flustered mess with papers and notes spilled across the far end of the table, had taken a tot it seemed, and his cheeks were flush as he nervously riffled through his papers.
O’Reilly, ship’s Bombardier, came in, slapped the chief engineer on the shoulder as he passed, causing the man to nearly spill his tea down his overalls.
“Ev’ning, Marshal,” he said clicking his heels together and saluting. The acrid smells of his workshop down by the engine clung to his clothes, causing the eyes of those near him to water.
“Have a seat, Mr. O’Reilly,” Victoria said returning her cup to its saucer, “We’ll begin right away. 0sc4r, if you’d please.”
“Of course, *click* Ma’am *click*,” 0sc4r drew the curtains, turned to face the blank interior wall, and a whirring sound began rising his cranium. His utterly precise mechanical fingers opened a small box and drew out a set of projector slides. He inserted the first into a slot at this temple and from his eyes an arc of light fell across the wall. The image projected was a high altitude photo of mountains, marked in the corner as property of British Military Intelligence.
“This is the Brenner Pass, just over the Italian border from German Austria. And this,” Victoria stood to point to a barely visible line, “Is the road from Innsbruck, through the Alps, into Northern Italy.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen. I intend to destroy that road.”
“Oh, Oi already loike this plan,” O’Reilly clapped his hands. A stifled chuckle rippled through the staff. Victoria let it slide, giving them a moment to recover a professional air before continuing.
“With the main road out, our quarry, a german diplomatic envoy, will be forced to take an alternate route,” She pointed to an even thinner line that wound it’s way lazily through the mountains, “Where an ‘unfortunate’ landslide will trap our german friends in this village here, where they have no phone lines and no hope of a radio signal escaping the valley without a thousand foot climb up the mountain.”
“Once we have them trapped, we’ll fly south to Venice, where a meeting between German, Italian, and Turkish diplomats is set to discuss the Balkan situation. The new revolutionary element in the Balkans disturbs the Turks, which disturbs the new Italian government and their plans for the Adriatic, which brings the Germans into it as mediators. We will send in an impostor as the German envoy, at which point Professor Quirke will provide us with the proper procedures to intercept the Italian message to Berlin, requesting confirmation of the diplomat’s credentials, and send our fake confirmation.
Once in the meeting, our man inside will convince the Italians that the Kaiser is behind them 100% no matter the cost, while telling the Turks that the Kaiser values their alliance far more than the alliance with Italy. Then we’re on to phase three. 0sc4r, if you’d please.”
0sc4r removed the slide from his temple, and replaced it with another from the box.
“These are Turkish garrisons along the border in Greece. We will, and please control yourself Mr. O’Reilly,” A good natured chuckle circled the table, including O’Reilly himself, “stage three false flag operations against these garrisons.”
O’Reilly grinned ear to ear.
“Three attacks, all under the guise of Balkan revolutionaries, who are actually chafing under German-Austrian and Ottoman rule. The attacks are plausible and evidence is left behind. In addition, there will be evidence of Italian military aid to the revolutionaries. If all goes according to plan, we will have successfully fabricated an international incident from whole cloth, and severely hampered the ability of these three powers to work together. I can’t tell you how important that is if it does come to war between the King and Kaiser.”
She gave a moment for questions. Jackson leaned her chair back with a smug half smile on her face. She had no questions of course, as she’d been a part of planning the operation. The Professor was too busy coming to grips with how important it was that he have a fake confirmation protocol ready in less than four days and handling it, Victoria thought, quite well for an academic (thanks in all likelihood to the alcohol). O’Reilly had a question though.
“Operational range o’ this ship is limited. You cahn’t stay in Venice an’ fly false flags in Greece. ‘Ow we pullin’ that off, then?”
“We’ll have to leave our operatives on their own for a time in Venice.”
“Who’s the operative?” the navigator asked.
“A specialist with MI. They’re already in Italy on another assignment. We’ll rendezvous with them en route.”
With no more questions, 0sc4r removed the slide, dimmed his eyes, and brought the lights back up.
“I’ll need charges for the landslide ready in the next twenty-four hours, Mr. O’Reilly. Ms. Jackson’s plane is already painted with Italian colors and prepped to go. Professor Quirke?”
The Professor jumped at the mention of his name.
“Will your progress report be ready by tomorrow night?”
Issac winced, but after a moment, he nodded. If he wasn’t ready by then, he doubted he would ever be.
“Excellent,” Victoria stood, adjusting her uniform, “dismissed.”
Beth had the conn tonight. Flying over demilitarized France was a dull stretch as the only job that needed doing was keeping the ship in plenty of cloud cover when possible, and as high an altitude as possible when the clouds were sparse. She found it quite boring, but someone needed to be on duty while the Marshal was asleep, and Beth had volunteered. She drank her coffee in the silence of the night, watching clouds part against the bow of the ship.
There was a burst of clacking from the comms station as a message was typed out. Beth sat bolt upright.
“Report?” she asked as the comms officer checked the type against her code books.
“MI code. Report out of Milan.”
“What’s it read?” Milan was where they were supposed to rendezvous with their MI specialist.
“Safehouse compromised. Friendly pilot dead. Going to ground. Apologies,” The comms officer read.
Beth took the decoded message from her and checked it twice.
“Well fuck,” she sighed.
“Fuck!” Victoria spat.
“Language, *click* Ma’am *click*,” 0sc4r fussed.
“I could still get them out,” Beth reasoned, “If we could get a message to them, tell them where to meet us, I could land in some farmer’s back field and be off before anyone knew.”
“No,” Victoria said rubbing her temples. She had just finally been getting to sleep, “If you’re even spotted once, we’ve tipped our hand that we have an airship in play in Italy. We have to keep them ignorant of that if nothing else. A single spy in Milan doesn’t cripple us, discovery of this ship would.”
“I won’t be seen. I can do it Vic.”
“No. I’m sorry, I’m can’t risk it. We have to think of another way.”
The two sat in Victoria’s cabin for awhile in silence, thinking of ways to salvage the plan. Victoria had expected something to go wrong at some point, and she had prepared many contingencies for these hurdles, but she had never expected the plan to fall to pieces before she’d even arrived in Italy. Without a German speaking double agent, how could she get a seat at the table. She looked at 0sc4r.
“0sc4r,” she queried, “You speak German don’t you?”
“Naturlich *click* Meine Dame *click*,” he said, Victoria was sure smugly. He had been built in Switzerland and was tuned to speak German, French, or English as the need arose.
“That won’t do,” Beth shook her head, “Germans trust their automata more than brits, but even they wouldn’t use one as political liaison.”
“What other option do we have? Turn back with tail twixt our legs? I won’t have it,” Victoria rose and paced the small room for a moment, “ I need an alternative. Not even a good one, just something I can work with.”
Beth leaned forward, hands on her knees and fingers steepled.
“Maybe we can use 0sc4r. Not as our fake envoy, but as the envoy’s aid. What we need is somebody 0sc4r can coach through the meetings,” Beth mused.
Victoria paused an looked out the window. “Who do we have on board who can speak passable German and Italian?”
Issac opened the door of the workshop and was immediately struck by the odor of the fumes.
“Ahem,” Issac coughed, “I was told to come down here…”
“Rippah, by who?” said the bearded aussie, coming around the corner, in the midsts of removing his gas mask. Issac froze.
“Is…is it quite safe in here?” Issac asked.
“Oif coorse it is, mate. Now who sen’ ya?”
“The…the quartermaster said that you might have some…a few…alcohol, sir.”
“Ah! Oveh here,” the bombardier turned round the corner, and Issac followed. Bombardier O’Reilly moved a contraption of some sort, revealing a still. He blew the dust out of a beaker and handed it to Issac.
“Thank you,” Issac took the beaker and filled it to the brim.
O’Reilly tilted his head, “Rough day, eh?”
“Very,” Issac said taking a long drink.
“Yoor that MI blow in from Lundun, roight?”
Issac took another long drink, “Yes, sir, that’s me.”
“An’ woit’s eatin’ ya, mate?” O’Reilly pulled a bulb shaped flask off a shelf and filled it with contraband liquor.
Issac paused, “I am not soldier.”
“Most ain’t. That oill ya got?” O’Reilly took a drink himself.
“I am not a soldier, sir,” Issac said again, “I am a mathematician for god’s sake.”
“Still ain’t folloiwin’ ya, prof,” O’Reilly refilled the small flask, “Ya work for Intelligence, yea?”
“Yes, for the last two years,” Issac conceded, finishing his drink.
“Then in Lundun, oin a ship? Whoit’s the hullabaloo?” O’Reilly took Issac’s beaker and set it back on the shelf. Issac noticed that he had neither washed or rinsed it, but decided not to press the issue.
“The difference being,” Issac muttered quietly, “My desk in London is not flying many hundreds of feet in the air above the jagged rocks of the Alps, nor is it within striking range of the Kaiser’s airborne fleet.”
“Oh shure et is,” O’Reilly chortled.
Issac blinked, “I beg your pardon?”
“We spotted at least three attack squadron’s o’er Denmark could hit Lundun iffn it came to et,” O’Reilly mused.
“Oh?” Issac said softly, “That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“It shouldn’t, mate,” O’Reilly finished his second flask of not-quite-gin-but-trying and set the glass down on the same shelf as the beaker. “Et’s my experience that nobody’s really safe no matter where you put ‘em,” a pained look flashed across his face, quickly replaced by a new grin, but Issac could tell this one wasn’t a totally sincere grin.
“I’m not used to outright danger, sir. I fear I lack the constitution to perform in these circumstances.”
“You saying you could iffin’ they were different?” O’Reilly asked.
“Of course. In my own office, with my pipe and the quiet to think, I’m sure I could do it. But a mile in the air, with the constant hum of engines an unending reminder that but for a spanner dropped into an engine I might be falling to a grisly death? I honestly don’t know how anyone works like this.”
“Roight…I fink I just might have it then,” O’Reilly mused. He ducked behind a workbench, pulling out box after box from beneath it and sifting through each one. He made a grunt of approval at one box, but kept searching for another full minute before coming back up to Issac’s level. He held out two items for Issac’s inspection.
“Wax?” Issac said confused.
“An’ this little boon-doggle is for your pipe. Should keep things alright with regards to fiery explosions. Go to your quarters, tell whoever you’re bunking wif that I said it was ace, put a bit o’ this in the ears and light up your pipe in privacy. Pretend you’re back in Lundun if you loike.”
“That’s…that’s very kind of you, Mr….,” Issac paused.
“O’Reilly. You c’n call me Garrett if you loike, when we’re not on the job,” Garrett smiled and pressed the two items into Issac’s hand, “Now rack off! I got bombs to make.”
Issac stared at the papers arranged carefully on the floor of his cabin. Each one bearing notes on a particular protocol of German coding. He could read the code of course, but reading the code was not the same as forging it. It was like any language. Understanding it, and pretending to be a native speaker were very different things.
Issac took a deep breath, and plugged the wax into his ears.
The loud hum of engines, a near constant since he had come aboard, was silenced. The only reminder of it, was a faint vibration in the floor. Issac smiled.
He affixed Garrett’s boondoggle to his pipe; a dome of brass with a small wheel to strike a flint safely within. Tiny valves allowed air in and smoke out while keeping the flame away from anything flammable. Though it took quite the blaze to ignite the alchemical gas that kept modern airships aloft, regulations were still quite clear about open flames aboard.
Issac turned the little wheel and sipped on his pipe. It took a few tries to get the contraption to light, but light it did, and he soon filled his cheeks with sweet Cavendish smoke.
He closed his eyes, focusing his mind on the problem. It didn’t have to be perfect. It really didn’t. Just passable.
He opened his eyes and looked at the papers again. Each notation, each code, was a puzzle piece. Here, on the floor, was the forged message, waiting to be put together.
Each message started with certain, seemingly random letters. In truth, they weren’t random at all, and determined the location the message had originated from, the operator who had sent it, and particular breed of the diplomatic code that was in use. The confirmation had to be from high enough to be beyond question, but too high would arouse suspicion. The Kaiser would be too high. The Kaiser’s personal code was only used for a select few messages sent out. Only used when relaying messages to heads of state. Unless the King of Italy would be at the meeting in Venice, the Kaiser’s own word would arouse only suspicion from the German embassy. The Prime Minister wouldn’t do either. Since the death of Bismarck, German Prime Ministers didn’t seem to do much of anything aside from attending social functions. It would work, but again, it would look strange. Things couldn’t look strange. It had to appear so normal that it could safely be ignored.
Foreign Minister then? No, not the Minister’s personal code. His office though. A high ranking staffer’s code, on duty to wait for the Italian request, relaying the Minister’s blessing. Which staffer? Issac looked around the floor, and pulled a paper near the corner.
This fellow? He was clearly a high ranking staffer, but his code was the most frequently seen. So he would be the easiest to fake, but also likely the fastest to discover the forgery after the fact. Still, anyone less recognizable would not be accepted immediately. It would have to be risked.
Office and operator were set, now the breed of code. This was tricky. German diplomatic code had an equation that had slight deviations for different purposes, but also a different ‘tone’. Issac had tried and failed to describe it any other way to an Admiral in London. For a diplomatic envoy mediating a convocation of foreign dignitaries, the tone would be formal and polite, but cautious. If the meeting went badly, the Foreign Ministry would not like to look as though they supported too strongly an incompetent. The Kaiser was known to make examples of underlings for less.
Once he had a tone, he had to pick the deviation of the code equation to convey it. This was actually the easiest part. The Language of the message had many nuances, but the math was concrete, immutable, and finite. He need only identify the appropriate variables. He opened his notebook, and he scribbled out a few additional notes, tore out the pages, and placed them precisely among the papers on the floor. He stood, trying to look at all the notes at once. He climbed onto the chair, and then tried to balance atop the small desk against the wall.
He looked down at the notes, trying looking for the patterns. He leapt down, swore as his landing scattered some papers, replaced them, and then added a few more pages from his notebook with fresh notes.
He did this three more times, then sat on his bunk, puffing at his pipe with eyes closed for a good amount of time. Diplomatic code, from the Foreign Ministry, by an operator he had just now named Gerald in his head, with the tone of a politely hedged bet.
He went through three pipes worth of tobacco, and half a notebook’s worth of paper, jotting down thoughts as they came.
Several hours later, he sat up smiling. He took the smoke of his pipe into the back of his throat, and puffed out a single gray smoke ring.
He had it.
Office, operator and deviation. The holy trinity of a forged transmission. It would need work of course, but all the pieces were coming into place now.
He pulled a clean piece of paper, and began writing up his report for the Skymarshal.
It is common knowledge among the Airborne Division, and the rest of the military in general, that pilots are narcissists. Each one is the hero in their own grand epic, and there is reason for this.
The Airborne Division actively looks for such a breed to pilot. An airship has armor, defenses, lifeboats, but a fighter plane has none of these. It takes a unique breed of soldier, one who thinks themselves invincible, to pilot such a craft in battle.
Furthermore, aboard a fully staffed airship, every member of the crew is a cog in a machine of war. Every action of the ship, every maneuver, every firing of the guns, is the result of combined and coordinated effort. Behind the controls of a fighter, every twitch is your own doing, every kill is yours, there is no one else. The pilot, the machine, and the sky.
Such an arrangement tends to stroke these egos.
Lt. Col. Jackson fully embraced this stereotype. Why shouldn’t she? Af far as she could tell, she was amazing. What man or woman wouldn’t be awed by her unbelievable skill behind the yoke of an aircraft? Who could refuse her advances, knowing her impressive deeds on the battlefield.
So thoroughly did she embrace this idea, that it had predictably landed her in quite a bit of trouble.
Elizabeth Jackson boasted the second most demerits of any pilot in the Airborne Division, and the foremost in demerits for a pilot who had not been dismissed from the service. Yet even this failed to dampen her ego. Quite the contrary, it was a point of pride. She would boast at length of her many many many citations.
At least, she had in the past.
Beth had finally finished her meeting with Vic around 2 AM, been dismissed, and ‘ordered’ to get some sleep. She had tried. For an hour she had tossed and turned in her bunk, failing to sleep, trying to ignore a voice in her head that just got louder and louder.
“You have to do it. You have to tell them.”
Finally, she threw her blankets aside, dressed, and quietly made her way down towards the engine room. Wireless communication aboard an airship in enemy territory was risky. Interception of even a coded transmission could be triangulated and spell disaster. Fortunately, the there was so much wireless traffic in Europe these days that the Airborne Division had developed an ingenious way of disguising its transmissions. Making them appear to be uncoded, but garbled, local chatter. Triangulation would still give away the ship’s position, but the intent was to make the signal so innocuous as to be below the attention of anyone listening.
This code wasn’t often used though, as it required a bulky difference engine to code and decode, and friendly difference engines often ignored the transmission for the very reason enemies did. It looked like local chatter to them.
Beth made her way down to a room just above the engines, took a small metal cylinder from her pocket and slipped it into a tiny hole in the far wall.
There was a click, and a panel of the wall swung slowly out. Beth pulled it open, revealing the controls of a difference engine, built into the wall.
She keyed in a message slowly.
Operative in Italy compromised.
She waited, holding her breath.
A minute later, a return message was spat out by the machine.
The skymarshal is returning home then?
Beth scowled at the tape, then keyed in her response.
Mission goes ahead on schedule. Skymarshal’s orders.
The difference engine whirred and clacked away at lightning speed, occasionally venting a bit of charged gas safely outside the ship. Beth held her breath again. She knew the machine had been installed to avoid detection. This close to the ship’s engine, the gas expulsion of the difference engine wouldn’t be noticed, and the cloud of charged gas moving the engine’s great turbine would keep the ship’s communications from picking up the rogue signal.
Still she worried. If she was caught…how could she explain? She hated doing this. Victoria was probably her closest friend.
The machine spat out another short message tape.
Beth’s fingers went back to the keys.
Alternative operative selected. Best available on short notice.
The engine whined as it translated the message. Engineers insisted that automata and difference engines didn’t have emotions or even thoughts like real people, but Beth was positive it was complaining about the constant use of the chatter-code.
The response didn’t come for quite some time, and Beth dared hope for a moment that they conversation was over.
Send us the operative’s dossier. We will consider further action at that time.
‘Further action.’ A terrible thought ran through Beth’s mind. Further Action. She began to key out a question, then flipped a switch removing it. They wouldn’t…they couldn’t have anyway. Even Beth hadn’t known the specific operative they were using until after the briefing that evening. She had told no one. Besides, they would never have compromised the identity of a British agent. Would they?
Her teeth ground together.
Dossier will take time to compile. Not readily available.
She sent the lie and waited for the response.
Need I remind you of our deal, Lieutenant Colonel?
Her teeth could have crushed diamonds.
No. Need more time.
The reply was quick, and clear.
Quickly, Colonel. Quickly.
Beth put the panel of wall back in place. She couldn’t send them the dossier. Not until she was sure. She knew they wanted the mission to fail. She didn’t know why, but she suspected it had something to do with the Admiral or Victoria. Maybe both. They were both high enough in the ranks to have made a fair number of enemies, but who would go so far as to compromise a British agent. That was treason.
Beth pressed her head against the wall.
Was that what she’d gotten involved in? Treason? And over what? A dance. A kiss. A jealous husband. That she said she’d be willing to do anything to keep flying.
Damn it all to hell.
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.”
Beth didn’t bother keeping her plane in the clouds. Her plane was already painted up in Italian colors, and these were Italian skies. She wouldn’t run across any other planes all the way out here (not likely anyway), but anyone on the ground would see a plane exactly where it belonged. Nothing suspicious to see at all.
She heard the Australian shout something over the roar of the wind, then felt a shifting in the plane’s balance as he detached himself from the wing. His jetpack made its own roar as he zipped away to his position, a trail of quickly vanishing steam tracing his path. Beth turned her plane to make a wide perimeter sweep before dropping her payload. Alchemical charges, brewed up by Garrett himself, which would punch a terrible hole in the side of a mountain, and send half of it careening down over the pass. The Italians would have to spend the better part of a year making the road traversable again. Less if the Germans pitched in, but if things went as planned relations there would be somewhat strained.
“If things went as planned.”
Beth found herself once again thinking on the message from her ‘patron’, as they had once identified themselves. She tried to push the thought away, but it had wriggled its way to the front of her mind and latched on quite firmly. Something was going to go wrong.
Garrett landed on the mountain side a bit harsher than he intended. He stumbled and fell, rolled a bit of a ways, then stopped. He remained stopped for a moment while he waited for something to explode, but after half a minute he decided that anything jostled by the fall that was going to explode would have done so by now, and he picked himself up. Not all the way up of course, as stealth was still nominally his mission.
He made his way to a ledge, flattened himself out on the ground, and pulled up a pair of binoculars. His eyes traced the road through the rocky valley below until he came to the point where it disappeared behind a cliff. Keeping his eyes on the corner, he hummed a cheery tune to himself, listening for the sweet sound of an explosion.
There are many experts on explosions. Alchemists, physicists, engineers, and some soldiers who could all be relied on to destroy something. If you need a building demolished, a canal dug more quickly, or an enemy position obliterated, these experts will no doubt get the job done.
There are fewer artists, who work exclusively in the medium of explosions. An artist is, after all, someone for whom the work is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. No engineer thinks the canal is less important than the application of dynamite through which it is made. An artist though, may not even consider the canal as he selects not the right dynamite but the right dynamite. Not the proper fuses but the proper fuses. The explosion is a work of art that lasts but for an instant. Momentary, ephemeral, and magnificent.
Any expert could cause a landslide, an artist could make it look nearly natural.
Bombardier Garrett Frances O’Reilly was such an artist.
Suddenly, there was a crashing boom like the sound of thunder in the far distance, followed in quick succession by a series of smaller crashes and O’Reilly cracked a smile from ear to ear.
Jackson had dropped the payload.
One of his own creations. Designed to cause the desired landslide, without leaving the mountain looking like it had clearly just had the absolute hell blown out of it. It most certainly had, but now it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious that it had.
Garrett kept his eyes on the road, and he waited. It was more than an hour before the Germans came around the bend. A few miles ahead they would run into the landslide and be forced to take the detour. He watched their convoy reveal itself, occasionally taking a note on the size and armament.
He counted twenty weaponized automata at the head of the train. About fifty men and women in the motorcade that he could make out from here. About half of them were diplomats and civilian personnel. The vehicles were mostly unarmed, but there was an anti-airship gun, and few machine guns. The rear guard was, again, twenty weaponized automata and a car pulling a-
Garrett paused. He set down the pen and adjusted the focus of his binoculars. He set them down, rub his eyes a bit and looked once more.
“Bugga ol,” he muttered.
“O’Reilly ta Skymarshal,” a voice whispered over the radio. Victoria turned to her radio quickly. Her orders at this stage were for radio silence except in an emergency. This did not bode well.
“Da got a fliga,” O’Reilly whispered back.
“A what?” Victoria turned to Ms. Burrows at comms.
“I think he meant Fliege, Ma’am,” she said, “A German manufactured small flying automaton.”
“What in hell are they doing with that!?” Victoria spat. If that flyer got out over the mountains it could easily inform the Germans, the Italians, or both that the diplomatic envoy was stuck. That wouldn’t do.
“All craft on perimeter,” Vic said into the receiver slowly, “Prepare to move in. That flyer does not leave the canyon.”
“Jackson here: I’m still en route to drop the second payload.”
“Oi can git ‘im, Marshal,” O’Reilly whispered back, “Da krouts see a plane an’ et’s dun. Oi can git ‘im no fuss.”
Victoria considered this for a moment. Then issued new orders.
“Perimeter detail: keep your distance. Jackson: drop your payload and circle back double time in case the flyer gets past O’Reilly. Mr. O’Reilly: I want that thing scrapped.”
Garrett knew how he’d like to attack the Fliege. On a perfect day, he’d approach from right behind the tail, it had the worst vision there. He could zip in, toss a proper, cathartically sized bomb, and the thing would turn to a million pieces of falling debris. No more fuss.
He couldn’t do that here. The damn Germans would spot him if he did it like that. Fliege’s were quick as death, so he’d be zipping back and forth trying to stay in its blind spot. Easy for a few of those metal bastards on the ground to start taking potshots at him. Not to mention that the automatas’ memories could be extracted, and then the Germans would have proof of British involvement. The Skymarshal wouldn’t approve of that. He’d have to find another way.
He had a rifle, but the Fliege was too fast for him to hit from any real distance, and those little bastards could change direction in the blink of an eye. No, he would have to get tricky to take this one. Inventive. Perhaps even downright stupid. He took a quick look through his collection of volatiles.
He had a few sticks of dynamite (not useful here), some crystallized alkahest (maybe 5 grams, he hadn’t really checked), some albedated Mercury, four Aurorium Nitrate flask-bombs, about 200 ml of Vril…plenty of chemicals to play with, but what could he use on the Fliege?
Maybe if he had some hydrogen but….wait….
He pulled out his canteen. Grand!
He emptied two of his flask bombs into the snow, filling them halfway with water. He added a few crystals of alkahest to one, and gave it a few quick swishes. He felt the flask heat up, and the water began to disappear as the bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen began to break down, with bubbles of the gases forming throughout. He then carefully, added a dash of Vril, dropped the flask, and dove behind a boulder.
There was a loud pop, the shattering of glass, and Garrett felt a wave of warm, moist air rush over the boulder. When the moist air made contact with his skin, he felt a jolt of a static shock.
Garrett stood. That had been roughly four seconds. That’s how long he’d have. He’d have to add the Vril mid-flight. This was going to take some juggling. He didn’t have time to practice either. Any minute now the scouts would spot the landslide over the main road and report it back to the column, then there’d be seconds before they launched the Fliege to relay the delay to Berlin and Potsdam.
This wouldn’t be easy.
But it would be fun.
It occurred to Garrett, as his jetpack billowed out a column of white steam below him, that perhaps he should have radioed this scenario into the ship (which in his opinion was in desperate need of an actual name despite the skymarshal’s insistence that it didn’t need one for covert operations) where the difference engine could have crunched the numbers for him. It could have given him the exact timing to drop, and how close to the ground he could get before he couldn’t help but go splat.
But that sort of arithmetical jib and jab took time, and Garrett was a busy man. There would be quite a lot of eyeballing it for this maneuver.
He ascended up nearly to the cloud cover (which wasn’t terrible high up here in the Alps), outside the Germans’ range, and then turned to position himself immediately over their column.
Automata had keen eyes. Especially weaponized German automata. As high as he was though, and as small as a single man with a large rucksack, he wasn’t likely to be spotted up here. This was the entire reason Third Fleet had begun training so many bombardiers and gunners in the use of jetpacks (despite the safety issues with such devices). British soldiers could easily shadow enemy troops without noisy, conspicuous aircraft alerting them.
The German’s had taken a different approach of course. They relied on small flying automata like the Fliege Garrett meant to destroy to do their recon work. Cold, metal eyes in the sky. Garrett hated that. He hated all those metal monsters, and the god-damned krauts who gave them weapons. What in the hell did they expect to happen?
He didn’t even like the skymarshal’s batman, but at least that one couldn’t hurt anybody.
Garrett realized he’d been clenching his fists on the jet controls and was gaining altitude. He relaxed his grip and waited.
It happened more or less as he had expected it to. He spotted the commotion through his binoculars, making note of anyone near the flyer’s launching contraption. It took just a few minutes for them to decide to launch it, and when they did, Garrett took off after it.
One advantage Garrett had was that the machine couldn’t send the transmission right away, for the same reason the German’s on the road couldn’t: it had to get out of the ravine. Once it was high enough, it would serve as a relay between the convoy and Innsbruck, and so on to Berlin, but the Fliege was an ornithopic flyer, not a Davincian. It couldn’t manage a strictly vertical ascent. When it launched it went out and up at approximately 50 degrees from the ground.
At speed he readied the vials, preparing himself.
The Fliege had the worst vision directly behind him, but its next worst vision was directly above it. Being built for ground survey and reconnaissance and forward flight, things directly above it weren’t considered a priority.
This was something Garrett could exploit.
He started a silent count, watching as the machine gained altitude. He fumbled for a moment with the vials, but he managed to get the alkahest into the flask of water with only a few crystals falling to the snow below. He gave it a swish. The Vril was harder, and a good portion of it was splattered on his fingers. That would start to hurt in about an hour. Once the Vril was in the vial as well, he sealed the lid, began a four count, and cut his engines.
He could feel the flask heating up. He’d put almost twice as much in this one.
The Fliege was almost out of the ravine. If he missed this toss, or if it didn’t work, he’d have a lot to explain to the skymarshal. He was almost on top of it. He’d hit it if neither of them made a move to dodge.
The Fliege had spotted him. He was sure of it. At least had noticed that ‘an object’ was falling towards it. It tilted, altering its course to evade the obstacle. Bombardier Garrett Francis O’Reilly smiled. Too little too late.
O’Reilly tossed the flask and gave his jets a momentary burst to push him laterally away from the contraption. The flask exploded mere inches from the Fliege, releasing a cloud of charged steam. Projected Hydroxic Acid, was the alchemical term. The alkahest had broken down the bonds between the hydrogen and the oxygen, allowing it to rebond around the Vril. The result was like an airship’s engine in microcosm. The new projection of water had a boiling point of 250 Kelvin, and an electrical charge to boot. At the edges of the cloud, one might feel a tingle or a small jolt, but the epicenter of the reaction was akin to being on the receiving end of a lightning bolt. The engine that served as the machine’s brain was completely ruined, and the Fliege fell back to earth.
Garrett himself was still falling. He did not dare engage his pack until he was low enough to be blocked from the Germans’ view by the mountains. He had a moment of sober reflection as the rocks came closer, debating internally if all this trouble was really worth crashing a damn meeting. It was fortunately very brief. He engaged his pack’s engines, landing roughly on the rocks in a cloud of steam and dirt.
Garrett stood, brushed himself off, and made sure none of his equipment was going to explode (unintentionally anyway).
“Won’t they know?” Issac asked 0sc4r as he peered out the small circular window at the passing clouds.
“I beg your *click* pardon?” it replied.
“One landslide is suspicious, but two almost certainly is sabotage. Won’t the German’s figure out that somebody didn’t want this convoy making it to Venice?” Issac said hopefully. He thought to himself, of course this mission is doomed to fail. How could the skymarshal not see it. Once she realized that the Germans would figure it out in no time they’d be forced to call the whole thing off. “And furthermore, even if they didn’t figure that part out, wouldn’t…um…word eventually get back to them that a German envoy was at the conference, even though their real envoy was stuck in the mountains?”
“Of course, *click* Sir. *click* But *click* They will not know *click**click* Who *click* is responsible *click*. Any number of *click* Interested Parties *click* could be responsible. *click* The Russians *click* The Spanish *click* French Terrorists hiding in the Alps *click* so long as *click* We *click* leave nothing to tie *click* His Majesty’s *click* Government *click* to the deed, *click* They can do nothing,” The automaton’s voice and tone were incapable of much deviation, but Issac got the impression that it was trying to console him. It was an odd sensation, being consoled by a machine. Issac imagined a mirror telling him “no, no, really, you look just fine.”
The machine was right of course. Blocking mountain roads was exactly the sort of petty thing the French Imperialists had been reduced to, and a fake envoy (while unconventional) was hardly an unthinkable tactic from any of the Great States of Europe. And of course members of Parliament and his Majesty’s councilors could deny it. The Admiral himself had said this ship wasn’t on any of the fleet’s lists. What was the phrase Lord Babbage had used? “A few simply honest men” who could simply and honestly deny everything.
Issac was stuck. He knew he was.
“I am not a man of intrigue, Mr……0sc4r.”
“Worry not, *click* Sir. I *click* will be with *click* you *click* the entire time. *click* There is no cause for concern.”
That was most certainly a lie. He’d been uncomfortable knowing he was flying over enemy territory, but this was completely intolerable.
Yet, O’Reilly had explained that his own home in London wasn’t exactly “safe as houses” as Issac’s mother used to say.
“What would I have to do exactly?”
“*click* Introduce yourself. *click* We have a *click* Dossier *click* you will have to *click* Memorize. *click* From there you will *click* Carry out *click* False Negotiations *click* Also laid out in the *click* Dossier.”
“I recall from the meeting,” Issac removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He’d been working all through the night, and the ache in his head reminded him exactly how unwise it was to drink so much when one is working till dawn. A hangover is mildly less unbearable when one has at least slept more than an hour.
“You will be what? My bodyguard?” Issac asked.
“No, *click* Sir. *click* I will be *click* your *click* Foreign Ministry Attache.”
“Why not my bodyguard? The Germans use machines for that sort of thing all the time, and I would certainly feel much better having an armed associate down there.”
“Yes, *click* Sir. *click* But *click* it is impossible for *click* Me *click* to be *click* your *click* bodyguard *click* as *click* I am *click* unable to carry a weapon.”
“Well, yes, the law is the law in England I suppose but surely if posing as a German-”
“You *click* misunderstand *click* me, *click* Sir. *click* I am *click**click* Literally *click**click* unable to carry a weapon.”
“Surely…I mean…I know you can’t break the law, but we’re not in England-”
“I am *click* Incapable *click* of *click* physically *click* carrying a weapon. *click* It is how *click* my *click* Difference Engine *click* is tuned. *click* Were *click* I *click* to pick up anything *click* recognized as *click* a weapon, *click* my hands would fall *click* entirely *click* limp. *click* I *click* would drop *click* it.”
“…I see…,” Issac put his glasses back on.
“Shall *click* we *click* go to see *click* Skymarshal Winthrop, *click* Sir?”
Issac nodded, gathering himself and his papers. He thought he might as well present his plans for the transmissions now.
A ship of His Majesty’s Airborne Division has very stringent weight restrictions, allotted primarily to the ship’s engine, fuel, and munitions. Naturally this means the flight deck of the Cheshire class the largest and most open area of the ship, as it is one of the only areas the engineers will absolutely refuse to shrink, scale down, or encroach on. The ship must be so light yes, but the runway and hanger must be so large.
This also means that the flight deck is the default location for crew recreation, both official and unofficial. When the deck is not otherwise in use, of course.
Once the missions pilots and bombardier were safely back aboard, Nathanson sealed up the flight deck, and called up to the skymarshal that the mission was complete. This is essentially when the festivities began.
Barrington and Anavoir rushed to O’Reilly, congratulating him on getting the better of the Fliege and demanding he tell them how he’d managed it. Jackson appeared (having snuck away very briefly) with a cup filled with O’Reilly’s very own contraband liquor. Back slapping and cheers passed around the technicians as O’Reilly explained his use of the projected hydoxic acid. One of the junior techs produced a phonograph and then it was officially a party. Word spread throughout the ship (as it will on a ship of less than 30 crew) and posts were largely abandoned, as most of the crew went down to the flight deck to join in the merry making.
Victoria heard about it of course, and though it was hardly proper for the crew to be leaving their posts, a good captain knows when a crew needs to celebrate. Their first mission had nearly been smothered in the crib, but today had gone well. She called down to Nathanson, gave the party her blessing, and allowed most of the bridge officers to go down and join in. The work was done for the day, afterall. All that was left was to turn the ship South so as to arrive at the Venice conference on time. She checked the ship’s clock; they were actually ahead of schedule since they’d skipped the Milan rendezvous. What could it hurt?
Still, she would need to debrief O’Reilly. She left the bridge, still wearing her monoggle, and ordered that any new developments be forwarded to her immediately.
Down on the flight deck, O’Reilly was the center of attention, particularly among the engineers, who were quite eager to hear about his mid-air admixture. The crowd surrounding him parted for the Skymarshal and O’Reilly leapt up to salute her.
“At ease, bombardier. Report?” She said over the music.
“Got the li’l Basterd wit a bit a fan-say alkemmy, Skymarshal,” Garrett said relaxing, “Evan ef t’ey put da t’ing beck toget’er, d-ingeen’ll be scrembled.”
Garrett laughed heartily and Victoria smiled. She didn’t bother to restrain her smile here, it was a party after all, anything less than a smile would be a sign of disapproval. She extended a hand, and Garrett took it enthusiastically.
“Well done, Bombardier,” She gave him a small nod, “Carry on.”
Vic left Garrett to his small but vibrant audience, and made her way over to Beth, who was dancing with a smiling young d-engine tech (whose name Victoria could not recall, and she made a note to learn it). They were whirling to some upbeat American fair when the tech noticed Vic. She hastily separated from Beth, blushing even worse, and made a hasty salute.
“At ease, Corporal,” Victoria returned the salute casually, “Ms. Jackson, may I have a word?”
Beth nodded, but before going she turned back to the tech, took her hand and kissed it. The tech turned as red as a beet, but couldn’t hide her smile as Jackson walked away. Vic walked with Beth over to her plane, away from the party, and out of earshot.
“What’s wrong?” Beth asked, keeping her smile up as she looked back towards the party.
“Intelligence on this mission has been absolute rubbish from the start Beth,” Vic said calmly, also maintaining her smile for onlookers, “I’m sure you’ve noticed by now.”
Beth nodded, “The Fliege.”
“Military Intelligence reported that the convoy didn’t have any flyers with them, manned or automata. The thing’s launch/maintenance contraption was the size of a truck. That’s not the sort of thing you miss.”
“Are you certain?” Beth murmured, “They could have picked it up on the way.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But this and Milan….”Beth’s smile wavered. Vic surmised that Beth must share her suspicions, “You agree then?”
“…I agree we should be very careful,” Beth advised.
“I’d like you on the ground in Venice.”
Beth looked at Vic like she’d said that grass was mauve colored. “Why?”
“Just the first day. I want you to shadow 0sc4r and the professor. I need somebody I can trust, and I’m certainly not sending O’Reilly anywhere that calls for a low profile,” Vic paused as a message flashed inside her eye-piece, “I have to go. 0sc4r and the professor are looking for me.”
“Of course,” Beth said somberly.
“Don’t worry about it Beth. We’ll get this done.” Elizabeth stared at Victoria’s back as she left, feeling the knot in her stomach tighten rather than loosen.
Right there! She growled at herself, right there is where you should have told her. She’s already suspicious, you could tell them she figured it out for herself. Beth scowled as she ran her hands over the wing of her plane.
She’d won this plane. Literally won it, in a bet with a senior flyer in First Fleet. Sometimes, senior pilots in First Fleet were allowed to install custom modifications to the ones issued by the Fleet. This one was beautiful. She’d been caught of course, and another citation for gambling had been added to her record, but the Skymarshal who issue the citation let her keep the plane. She had won it with sweat and blood and a raw talent other pilots would kill for. It wasn’t the Fleets’ plane, it was her plane.
But only so long as she was in the service.
She still couldn’t tell Vic. Vic couldn’t help her.
Her patron had made it clear what would happen if she didn’t cooperate. Beth closed her eyes for a moment and sighed heavily.
She couldn’t give up flying.
So she steeled herself. She would do everything she could to help Vic, and do as little as possible to help whoever was holding her hostage. Victoria was good, the best, she’d make it work no matter what surprises were in store.
She went back to the festivities, to find that tech she’d been dancing with. The one who looked so wonderfully kissable.
Victoria sagged into her desk chair. Her meeting with the professor had gone better than she’d expected. The little man had impressed her with his report on the forged message, and while he was clearly still unnerved by the prospect of operating on the ground in Venice, he was keeping up a brave face for the most part. Vic could respect that. Not everyone could have a soldier’s iron heart. Many soldier’s didn’t have one even.
It would be unreasonable for her to expect it of him, she knew this, and she thought he was handling it quite well all things considered.
A whistle from her inter-com interrupted her reprieve. She lifted the receiver, “Winthrop speaking.”
“Ma’am, we’re receiving a coded message from the Admiral,” the bridge reported.
“Forward it to my quarters please,” she flipped a few switches and stood. She went to the corner of her quarters where a small table sat. Wires ran from her personal D-engine under a cloth that was covering something atop the table. She removed the cloth, revealing a wood and brass head. As she did, the face of the false head came to life, and a smooth clean voice said, “Good evening, Victoria. I hope you are well?”
She flipped a switch near the base of the head, and began dictating.
“Well as can be expected, Admiral. Stop.”
“Oh? Do tell,” the head responded after only the briefest of pauses. Devices like this were incredibly expensive. Most automata like 0sc4r had a voice that was…passable. At some point during their construction it had been decided that the voice needn’t be pretty, merely functional. Such was the logic of engineers. While Vic didn’t necessarily disagree, in this instance she had treated herself. This head received the translated messages of the Admiral from the D-engine, and dictated them to her in a wonderfully soothing voice. Male or female, to be set by her with a small switch.
“We’ve run into a few complications here. Make no mistake, we are proceeding as planned, but with a change in our operative. Stop.”
“I trust you have things well in hand.”
Vic audibly scoffed, then instructed the D-engine to disregard that. “If you trusted me, you wouldn’t be calling.”
“Quite the contrary. I am excited to hear of your progress. The german envoy is tied up in the Alps then?”
“They took the detour and Jackson trapped them just as planned,” Vic smiled. Once the Fliege had been removed from play the German column had behaved wonderfully, “They’re stuck in a mountain village with no telegraph lines or way to radio out.”
“Wonderful. Glad to hear it.”
“Buuuut…” Vic prompted.
“But nothing, Victoria. I simply wanted to make sure our German friends were where we agreed to put them away.”
“Don’t worry yourself. Tell me: how did Issac take the news?”
“News?” She sat up.
“You’re sending him to the conference, yes?”
“How did you….disregard last sentence,” Vic closed her eyes and nodded, “You heard about the Milan station.”
“Naturally,” the clockwork head said neutrally, but Vic knew the original speaker was being smug.
“And you picked Quirke personally,” of course he would know the professor spoke the languages needed, and from there it wouldn’t be hard to guess her short notice choice for replacement.
“I did. Aren’t you glad?”
“Don’t be cute. Did you know there would be trouble in Milan?”
There was a much longer pause after her question. This worried Vic. The Admiral was generally unflappable. The eventual response read thus, “No. I did not expect the trouble in Milan. I expected our enemies to be subtler than that.”
“Then we do have enemies.”
“I find it helpful to assume any misfortune is the work of an enemy. If you’re right, you catch on earlier than most. If you’re wrong, you’re still more prepared for when they make their actual move.”
“What can you do from home?”
“Not as much as I’d like.”
Vic thought for a moment, “Is there a meeting of the war mongers in the next few days?”
“I can’t divulge any meeting that may or may not be occurring within the next few days. Particularly involving the War Secretary and his associates.”
“Bring up Milan for me.”
“Thank you Admiral,” Victoria flipped a switch and ended the dictation.
“If you’re sending 0sc4r with him,” the Admiral said before going, “Make sure you finally fix his voice. A diplomatic attache automata would have a better tuned voice than a common servant golem.”
Issac nervously drummed his fingers on his bag as he waited on the flight deck. Nathanson was busy re-tuning and oiling 0sc4r’s voice cylinders.
“Try ‘er now, 0sc4r.”
Inside the automaton’s open chest, air bladders filled and began pumping through the voice cylinders, “How now *click* brown cow?”
“Betta. Give ‘er one more go ‘ere,” he turned a valve in the exposed mess of tubes, glass, and pumps inside the metal man. “Once more?”
“How now *click* brown cow?”
Nathanson swore and kicked 0sc4r’s leg. The automaton didn’t seem to notice.
“I believe *click* there is still a misaligned *click* cylinder,” the voice attempted to mimic an apology.
“Bloody well got that part!” spat the exasperated engineer. The man collected himself, and went back into the automaton’s chest piece and continued tinkering with his wrench.
Major Barrington was running checks on his plane, which had been painted up in German colors from this mission. He would be flying them down to the skyport of Venice, drop off both Issac and 0sc4r, then take off quickly before anyone could ask him any questions. Questions like “Do you speak any German?”
He spoke enough Italian though to get them into the skyport safely, and Issac had been instructed to teach the Major how to say it with a German accent. It would be passable, which would, once again, be good enough.
“Something on your mind, Professor?” he asked.
“Just nerves, Major. I’ll be quite alright I’m sure,” Issac said smiling.
“You’ll do fine. And if not, you’ll have the metal man there to get you out. He’ll take good care of you.”
Issac looked back to 0sc4r. He was large and imposing, but he couldn’t carry a weapon. How much use would he be if they had to make their escape under fire. Issac shook his head. It wouldn’t come to that. He would make it work.
Nathanson finally gave up on the misaligned cylinder, closed up 0sc4r’s chest, and sent him on his way.
“Are you ready to depart, *click* Professor?”
Issac nodded, “Ready.”
“Good. *click* I look forward to working *click* with you.”
“Strap in gentlemen,” Barrington called from the cockpit.
Issac climbed up to join the Major at the top, while 0sc4r folded himself into the cargo compartment. Nathanson closed the compartment’s hatch and give Barrington an OK. A shrill bell rang out. Anything that wasn’t bolted to the deck was located and secured. The flight deck doors were opened, and the plane was unhooked. The plane rolled off the flight deck, fell for a fraction of a second, and then the trio sped out into the clouds below, headed South to Venice.
Nathanson wiped his palms on his overalls and was about to close up the doors when there was a tapping on his shoulder.
He turned to see Jackson, strapped into a jetpack.
She held a finger to her lips, stepped around Nathanson, and leapt off the flight deck. Soon she too was flying South to Venice. The plane ahead of her none the wiser.
Nathanson saw all this, shrugged, closed up the flight deck. It was out of his hands now, the Skymarshal would understand that. What had he been supposed to do? Jackson just did some damn foolish things sometimes.
Issac was sweating as he climbed out of the flyer. He needed to appear confident and bored if this was to work, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop the sweat from beading up on his forehead. Already there were four Venetian men approaching, three of whom were clearly soldiers, heavily armed. One even had a Russian made lightning-thrower by the look. Issac remembered hearing those were very good at hitting flyers from the ground. He very much hoped Barrington wouldn’t have to test his evasion against it. The fourth man looked like an official though, so Issac walked forward, stumbling only a moment as he got his land legs back, and shoved a small packet of papers at this man.
“I am in need of a valet for my bags, please,” Issac said in german accented Italian. He tried to say it slowly and casually, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to show up unannounced at a skyport and expect to be treated like an honored guest.
The official took the papers baffled, and was about to respond when the cargo hatch of the flyer burst open and 0sc4r noisily unfolded himself.
The guns of the soldiers came up at this surprise arrival.
Issac reacted faster than he could think.
“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing!” He shouted at the men. He tried reminding himself that they were heavily armed, but they flinched at his words, and Issac found himself pressing on. “That is my aide you are pointed your guns at. Is this how the ‘Jewel of the Adriatic’ greets all its guests?”
The soldiers hesitated, but the official waved them down urgently. He had seen the Imperial Seal of the Kaiser on the papers handed to him and was very now much aware that his men had just threatened representatives of an allied government. At least, that is what he thought.
“My apologies, sir. We had no warning about your arrival. My men were merely taking all necessary precautions I assure you. No offense was intended, Herr…,” he glanced at the papers again, “Schultz.”
Issac nodded, “Not at all. And your name?”
“I am Signor Duodo, Chief of Security here, sir. I apologize again, and hope you will not be too offended by my questioning your presence here,” Duodo asked, “I…I hate to seem rude of course, but I must inquire. I just would have assumed we were to be informed previously if you were arriving at our humble skyport.”
“You are right to be cautious, Sig. Duodo,” This part had been scripted, the reasons for their unannounced arrival. Issac recited his line, trying not to speed through it, “In fact, caution is exactly why you were not informed. Try as we might, there are still leaks in the diplomatic channels, and there are things happening that were too important to risk.”
“Yes, yes, the summit. I had heard,” Duodo narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. He was no fool it seemed. He was not going to swallow all this without question. “I will take these with me for just a moment, and contact your embassy. They will want to know you’ve arrived.”
He said this, watching Issac’s face closely, looking for the twitch of nervousness. Issac smiled. There was still some twitching and sweating, but no more than he had been since the moment the plane had landed.
“When you’ve gotten hold of them, tell them to wire Berlin and let the Foreign Minister’s office know I’ve arrived. Oh, and tell them to send a cab as well will you?”
Issac turned and walked back towards the plane. He kept his back straight and his walk casual, but when he met Barrington’s gaze, he conveyed with his eyes how relieved he was that the conversation was over for now.
“So…?” Barrington whispered as 0sc4r finished unloading the cargo, “Going well?”
“Better than I’d even hoped,” Issac sighed, “It’s very much like acting. I’ve done a tad bit of that.”
“Really?” Barrington looked skeptical.
“Oh yes,” Issac said proudly, “You’re looking at the Rosencrantz for the Cambridge Student Dramatic Society production of Hamlet.”
“No lie?” Barrington said in mock surprise.
“Oh yes….well his understudy. But I played the part for most of the run. The first actor caught something terribly foul.”
Barrington laughed and shook his head. “Well good luck Rosencrantz. I’m headed back to the big squirrel nest.”
“Squirrel nest?” Issac was confused.
“Yeah. It…it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when you get back,” Barrington started the plane’s engine.
“Woah, Major, they’re still suspicious of me. I can’t guarantee they won’t risk shooting at you when you leave. Isn’t it better to wait?”
“The longer I stay, the greater the risk they try talking to me, professor. I’m a rotten liar face to face. Can’t even play decent poker. Trust me. I need to leave.”
Issac looked back at the soldiers. They were confused about the flyer starting up, but hadn’t decided how to respond yet. Sig. Duodo was already gone to wire the embassy, and they had no orders to speak of.
“You’re sure you can’t stay until after Duodo get’s back? Just in case.”
“Who? Oh the well dressed bloke. Look, stop worrying so much, professor,” Barrington slapped him on the arm, “Like I said, 0sc4r will take care of you. Break a leg out there.”
Issac backed away so Barrington could turn his flyer around and then he was gone. Zipping up into the air. Several skyward pointed guns (the soldiers’ and the skyports own turrets) followed him as he went, but as the gunners realized they weren’t going to receive confirmation on if it was or wasn’t a German diplomatic plane before it was out of range anyway, the all gave up and lowered their guns.
Nobody want’s to be the idiot who shot down an imperial aircraft, Issac thought, giving a reassured sigh.
With the plane gone, the soldiers were willing to at least escort Issac inside to wait for Sig. Duodo. Issac reiterated a need for someone to bring his bags around to the front when the cab arrived. The soldiers assured him somebody would see to it once the credentials were all sorted, but Issac insisted, he was well into his role as an busy and impatient dignitary, and he figured he should be at least passably rude to his hosts. That was the default for politicians in his experience. Finally, one of the soldiers went to get the luggage moved out to the front, and Issac and 0sc4r settled down to wait for the Chief of Security in a small smoking lounge.
Bombardier O’Reilly whistled while he unscrewed the metal box on the tall post. This high in the Alps, wireless transmissions were practically impossible, and the weather was too unpredictable and severe to use Verig Radiostars. Even the self-piloting ones would just run out of fuel before they had a chance to recoup the costs. The French had tried tethers a couple times, but Imperialist insurgents in the mountains kept cutting them. No sell.
So the Germans just stuck to standard telegraph lines. The Imperialists still knocked them down from time to time, but it was far cheaper to put a log back upright than to buy a new Radiostar.
This particular pole was special though. About six months ago, British intelligence had affixed a device to intercept German transmissions. Transmissions which had been vital to Professor Quirke’s own work decoding the German diplomatic code.
It was a fine contraption. It just needed a small little tweak.
Looking again at the instructions, Garrett stopped unscrewing the side of the box, and pulled out a pen. Pulling the panel back just as far as the half-unscrewed state would allow, he slipped the pen into the gap at the top of the box, three inches from the left hand side. He heard a click.
Garrett smiled and slipped the pen back into his pocket. The explosive trap disarmed, he resumed unscrewing the box.
When the panel was removed, Garrett took a look at the whirly-gig inside, and let his whistling trail off. He took a good look at the instructions again. There were a long list of modifications to make. Dials had to be turned from whatever that setting was to whatever else down here…that doodad had to go entirely and get replaced by this boon-doggle from the ship…the wireless thingy had to be tuned to the right settings to talk to the other such thingy on the ship.
It took a few more minutes to complete the changes than O’Reilly had been led to believe, but he did get it done. He resumed whistling as he screwed the box back together. He unhooked the harness that kept him from falling off the pole, and let himself fall about ten feet before firing his jet-pack. He zipped away just as the box began clicking and whirring.
The box attached to the pole in the Alps which Bombardier O’Reilly was in the process of escaping from was a bit of ingenious device from the Third Fleet’s engineers. Normally designed to record coded German messages sent along the line and forward them to a nearby listening post for Military Intelligence. This was incredibly useful, but not what Victoria needed. The changes to the device had been a special request she’d made of the Admiral. Normally, the designs for these devices were, naturally, the strictest of secrets even to officers of Vic’s ranking in the Third Fleet. All the same, she knew she’d need access to the listening box if she wanted her plan to succeed.
So the Admiral had supplied the designs, and the instructions for the modifications she wanted. She had dispatched O’Reilly to make the changes, and now she had exactly what she needed.
Now, instead of merely listening, the device would cut off any transmission sent in known German codes from traveling down the line (which, thanks to MI’s recent breakthroughs was nearly all of them) and send it to her ship. Using Issac’s notes, they could then send an appropriate response to the device and it would send it along in the proper direction.
The beauty of it was that any uncoded traffic would carry through just fine, and the Germans wouldn’t realize anything was amiss until 0sc4r and Issac were finished in Venice.
“It’s coming through now Skymarshal,” Mr. Lal said, reading the tape as it scrolled across his station, “Looks like the request for confirmation from the German Embassy. It goes just as the Professor thought it would.”
“Send the response, Mr. Lal,” Vic nodded. Now she just hoped that Issac’s message was as expertly crafted as he claimed it to be.
Issac was starting to sweat again.
Surely it shouldn’t be taking this long, he thought. All they had to do was ring the embassy and tell them he was here. Then the embassy would telegram Berlin and ask for the confirmation. That shouldn’t take long at all.
And yet, he’d been waiting in the lounge for almost an hour now. What was taking them so long?
What if his message had been flawed? If the code was wrong, German telegram policy would be to send the message again, and see if the response was flawed a second time. Even if the Skymarshal and her people knew the German procedure, they wouldn’t know where Issac went wrong. They wouldn’t be able to fix it.
What if it was worse than that? What if the embassy just knew it was fake. What if they took one look at that message, and decided it was a fake on the spot. It was more than likely these men had been informed that the diplomatic envoy was supposed to arrive by car.
“Surely,” they would say, “the code was perfect and the Kaiser has been known to keep plans for these things very close to the chest, but there is just no possible way the Kaiser has changed the plan so drastically and not informed us.”
Or what if the message had never even gotten that far? Duodo seemed a very sharp fellow. He was suspicious, that much was clear, but was that a normal degree of suspicion for a security chief, or was Duodo on to him somehow? Issac went over their short exchange out on the runway. Had he done something to give himself away already? He had felt very good about his abilities under pressure at the time, but…
If they did suspect him, and they were going to arrest him, why didn’t they just get it over with? Why would they make him wait this long? If they did come to arrest him, what could he do? Barrington had had great faith in 0sc4r’s ability to get Issac out if things went pear-shaped, but Issac didn’t see how. 0sc4r couldn’t use a weapon, and no matter how strong it was it was not likely to muscle its way through all the soldiers (particularly those with the lightning-throwers). Maybe there was a small jetpack tucked away in that chest cavity.
Just as Issac was about to question 0sc4r concerning escape plans there was a knock on the door and Sig. Duodo briskly entered the room.
“Apologies for the delay, Herr Ambassador, the cab took a wrong turn. They’re waiting for you out front,” Duodo still looked rather suspicious, but handed Issac his false papers back. Issac took them quickly.
“No apology necessary, Signor Duodo. The inconvenience of my arrival has not been lost on me and i thank you for your indulgence,” Issac said relieved.
“Of course,” Duodo mumbled.
Signor Piero Duodo watched ‘Herr Schultz’ and his automaton intently as they left. He knew something was amiss, but everything did seem to be in order.
The man’s papers had checked out, the embassy, while a little confused, had wired their masters and found that the man was indeed who he claimed to be.
Still (and Duodo felt very strongly about this), if that man was the German envoy Duodo would eat his own hat.
“Is something wrong, Signore?” one of his men asked.
Piero Duodo mused for a moment.
“Something is very wrong indeed,” he took out his watch. Not quite 5 o’clock, “Get me Signor Baroncelli. I’d like to see him for dinner.”
Issac locked the door of his room and leaned against the wall beside it, watching 0sc4r slowly making rounds of the room. When the automaton was reasonably certain there were no listening devices in the room, it nodded, and Issac slide down the wall to sit on the floor. Getting through the embassy had been harder than getting through skyport. There he was still supposed to be a foreigner, so a faux pas or two could be excused easy enough, but at the embassy he was allegedly among his own countrymen. It was a constant pressure on his mind to remember all the things he would be expected to do as a German and a member of the foreign minister’s office.
He’d had to be on constant alert for any little tick or slang that might give him away, had to constantly strain to remember the massive stack of intelligence papers the skymarshal had forced on him, detailing the political climate in Berlin and throughout the Kaiser’s Empire, which he had to pretend to be an expert on. He’d found that he could deflect most questions about “his opinions” on whatever issue by saying “as an officer of the Kaiser’s foreign ministry, I’m afraid I can’t comment on that,” but that could only take him so far. He’d ended up in a half hour conversation with the regular German ambassador, asking after mutual friends that Issac had never met (unless you counted examining their codes), having to piece together in his head the scraps of information he could recall about those people named in the dossier on the German diplomatic corps and the whatever context he could pick up from the ambassador. Fortunately, Baldrik, the ambassador, was a man who did most of the talking in his conversations, so there had been plenty of room to just shrug, grunt in agreement, or chuckle knowingly to keep the conversation going as if Issac knew what the man was talking about. He’d made a few slip ups. Assuming some person called ‘Jakoba’ was a woman, rather than an affectionate nickname for a particular male officer Jakob, whom he was expected to know because “Oh, everybody knows Jakoba.” He’d managed to excuse himself from that by blaming the long trip, but he still wasn’t convinced he hadn’t blown his cover entirely with that slip up.
“Mr. Schultz?” Issac was so exhausted it took him a moment to realize 0sc4r was speaking to him, using the German name he’d been given for the assignment, “Mr. Schultz. I think we should *click* go over Skymarshal *click* Winthrop’s notes for the meeting *click* tomorrow.”
“Yes of course,” Issac heaved himself up from the floor, brushing his jacket off. He reached absentmindedly for his notebook before remembering that he’d had to leave it aboard the ship. He sighed.
“Here you are, *click* sir,” 0sc4r held up a brand new notebook and pen.
“Thank you, 0sc4r,” Issac mumbled before correcting himself. It’s a machine, it doesn’t need your thanks. It’ll tell you that itself if you ask it.
“The Skymarshal *click* instructed me to remind you *click* you are not to use any codes or cyphers in your notes that would be *click* problematic if the notebook were left behind.”
“Of course, of course,” Issac said opening the notebook. It was not a notebook he would have picked out himself. The leather of the cover was too thick and stiff, and the paper was quite coarse. People who did not take notes found it difficult to imagine how particular Issac was about the medium he utilized. The paper, the pen, the cover, all meaningless, trivial things in their own right, but they mattered to him. Every imperfection, every deviation from the ideal case, was a roadblock that kept ideas from being fully conveyed onto the page.
Alas, all of his favorite notebooks were full of his own notes. Notes on cracking German codes (or making better British ones). He would have to make do with these. He scribbled a few test lines, then he drew a small grid. He spent a few minutes concocting a new cypher for his notes, nothing too complicated, just enough so a man looking over his shoulder couldn’t read it. He glared at the grid until it was burned into his memory, then he tore the page out, struck a match, burned the paper and lit his pipe.
“Go ahead then, 0sc4r.”
0sc4r dictated from the automaton’s impossibly accurate memory the dossiers Issac had been given the other day, laying out the political situation, the people who would be at the meeting, and a hundred other things that ‘Herr Schultz’ would be expected to understand should they come up (which they would almost certainly not).
Since their revolution, the Turks had begun to rebuild and revitalize their empire. With their new, ungodly twisted version of the Janissary, they had pushed back into the Balkans in the later half of the 19th century, possessed of a fire not seen since the days of Suleiman. So fearsome was the new Ottoman lion that the Hapsburgs, that august and ancient house, had finally been brought low, forced to join themselves fully to the new rising Empire of Germany. Today the Sultans and the Kaiser were on good terms politically, but many Austrians in the Kaiser’s empire remembered well the terrors of the Islah Savaşi, the War of Reclamation as the Turks called it.
Today the Turks controlled everything South of the Danube, including Belgrade, and this was where the Italians became involved. The new King of Italy had a vision of bringing all the Adriatic into his sphere, to complete the acquisition of all that had belonged to that Serene Republic, Venice. Those territories along the eastern shore of the Adriatic were Turkish holdings now, and this was quickly becoming a problem.
The Turks accused the Italians of supporting local dissidents, while the Italians accused the Turks of supporting pirates in the air and sea of the Mediterranean.
The Germans had managed to forge a tentative alliance between them all the same, on the grounds that the Italians hated the British, and the Turks the Russians, far more than they hated each other.
It made a certain sense. The Ottomans had perhaps the deadliest land army in the world (if not the largest), the Italians built some of the best flyers in the world, and the Germans had the money to finance both of them. If they could put aside their mutual mistrust and hatred, there would be no power in the world that could stand against them.
Things were going well for the Kaiser’s alliance so far, but the Balkan’s were flaring up again, and rebels there were starting to inflict real damage on Janissary operations there. This meant the Turks were increasing the military presence there, which made the other two nervous. This meeting was supposed to be a simple chat to calm everyone’s’ nerves.
Issac’s job in making sure that didn’t happen was simple: make each side believe the Kaiser values them more than the other. Hopefully, emboldened by the Kaiser’s support, they would do something stupid when the Skymarshal made her move in…Bosnia was it? Somewhere in the Balkans. Issac pushed that out of his mind. Better if he not even think about that. Focus was needed on the task at hand.
So Issac listened to 0sc4r go on and on and on and on.
He listened until he fell asleep at the writing desk.
0sc4r momentarily considered waking him, but he had orders from Victoria.
“Advise him; Protect him; Watch him; Above all just take care of him, 0sc4r.”
So 0sc4r did not wake the professor, instead he lifted him with calculated gentleness, laid him onto the bed, and tucked him under the blanket before moving to the corner to wind down for the night.
Piero Duodo was standing in the study of Signor Gerardo Baroncelli, chief adviser to the Interior Minister, waiting patiently while two glasses of port were filled. Signor Baroncelli was quite fond of port. He was a rotund man with small eyes peering out over an impressive mustache. Peiro had heard that his family had come from Sicily before arriving in Rome twenty years ago, where he had proven indispensable to no less than a dozen Interior Ministers over the course of his career. He had temporarily moved to Venice whilst the business of who controlled the Adriatic was sorted out. He was to be in charge of security for the conference on the issue.
“It was a lovely dinner, Signore,” Piero said after being handed his glass, “Your wife is an excellent cook.”
“She most certainly is,” Baroncelli smiled as he took a seat, Piero sat as well. He took a sip of his port and Piero did the same. “But you didn’t come here to compliment my wife’s cooking I think. What troubles you Peiro?”
“Well, Signore, I’m sure you are aware of the arrival at the skyport today. The German envoy?”
“Ah yes, I had heard. The glorified assistant to the German ambassador. What of it?”
“Well, Signore, you don’t find the circumstances odd? All the information I had seen said that the envoy was to arrive by car, but then he appears at my skyport with no warning to myself or even his own embassy whatsoever.”
Baroncelli raised a hand and Piero stopped.
“I hear you Peiro, I shall even applaud your vigilance, but the Interior Minister was already aware of this change of arrival plans a week ago.”
Piero was shocked, “What? I heard none of this.”
“Of course not, it was a matter of greatest secrecy,” Baroncelli took a sip, mused on the taste a moment and swallowed, “I am not supposed to share this information with anyone outside the Office of the Interior, but I fear you will not be satisfied unless I tell you the whole of it. Am I right?”
Piero was slightly embarrassed, “Apologies if I have overstepped myself, Signore.”
“Not at all. I shall share this with you, under the caveat that anything I tell you is not to leave this room. If it does, I shall deny it, and you my friend will find yourself in quite a bit of trouble. Do we have an understanding?” Piero nodded and Baroncelli continued, “The Minister has reason to believe that there is a plot to sabotage the conference.”
“How?” Piero set his port aside. It was too sweet for him.
“That I cannot tell you,” The large man sighed, “but I can tell you that the Germans had planned to change their travel arrangements as a result. They refused to share any of these altered plans for fear of word reaching the ears of the saboteurs.”
“Who are the plotters? What can we do?”
“Exactly what I am doing Piero. I watch, I wait, and make our move when the time is right. Until then…” He raised his glass of port and laughed again.
Elizabeth watched the German embassy from a rooftop across the alley. She’d been looking at the room Quirke was staying in for a few hours as 0sc4r had debriefed him, waiting to see if the Germans made a move on him. It seemed quiet.
If the Italians knew about Vic’s plan they’d have arrested Quirke as soon as he’d landed, and if the Germans knew they’d surely have arrested him by now. She’d had a plan to crash through the window, as daring and brash as could be, gun down the first gendarme to lay a hand on the professor and then dash away into the sky with the frightened academic in tow.
It would have looked very impressive.
Unfortunately, there was no need.
Heading back to the ship might be best.
She hoisted herself up, ready to engage her jetpack when she saw a faint light coming from a window beneath her. She ducked back down, a peered over the edge of the roof just enough to see a man looking out the window towards the embassy. The light went out, but a moment later the window opened. the man, dressed all in black with a satchel hanging from his shoulder, stepped onto the window sill with a rope in hand. He gave it a mighty toss up and across the alley, and there was a clatter as the hook landed on the roof of the German Embassy.
The devil is this now? She thought, some Italian spy looking in on the Germans? No, they could have had a man get a good long look at Quirke from the skyport, they wouldn’t need to risk offending the Germans with this stunt. Maybe a Turk?
The man in black gave the rope a tug, then silently swung out into the alley. His feet landed softly on the wall beside the second story window into Quirke’s room.
It can’t be a German. They could get all they needed from a peephole inside. Maybe it’s not one of the three conference goers at all, she reasoned, any number of players could be at work. I’ll bet it’s a Russian. Midnight window peeping. Sounds crude enough to be a Russian job.
He maneuvered himself over to the windowsill, balanced himself and pulled a small camera from his bag. It was a small thing. No bigger than a tea kettle.
Beth groaned under her breath. She knew that camera. A Belgian made Spectateur, striped down and modified for a nearly silent shutter. She knew all of this, because she had seen this type of camera before, many times. In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if one was sitting in the hold of Victoria’s ship at this very moment.
It was exactly the camera used by British Military Intelligence.
A thousand thoughts tried to crowd their way to the forefront of her mind.
Of course MI is looking at the German Ambassador. It would be routine work. Couldn’t they have seen him at any time during the day though, why the window peeping? They should know better than to risk getting caught out here. Besides, MI should know that the Admiral and Vic had an operation going on. Or at least that somebody did. The Admiral had assured Vic before they left England that there would be no interference from MI’s local Venetian house. Maybe they’d simply gotten curious. Was somebody disobeying orders?
What if they were obeying orders?
What if they were obeying the sort of orders Beth had gotten. Like the one where she was told to hand over Quirke’s dossier.
Damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn damn DAMN, She wanted to yell. If this was orders from her patron (or patrons, Beth had no way to know) then the best move for her was to stay out of it. Just let this fellow do what he came to do and fly away when the coast was clear. Victoria need never know she saw the man. Had she made the decision to leave a mere thirty seconds sooner that would have been the case anyway.
Vic’s plan might end up scrapped though, if this man’s intentions were more than just photographs. Could she risk it?
She sighed. She really could pretend she’d seen nothing.
She stood, turned around and walked along the roof away from the alley.
The she turned, gave herself a running start and leapt out into the alley. The man must have heard her footsteps, because her turned to see her sailing through the air a moment before she landed on the sill beside him. He went for a knife strapped to his leg, but Beth was already swinging the back of her fist into his face. He was tumbling down to the street before he even had his knife out. He reached out for the rope he’d swung over on, but Beth was already on it, sliding down, letting her feet crush his fingers on her way down. To his credit, the man didn’t cry out as he fell to the cobblestone below. She landed softly beside him.
He wasn’t moving, but a quick investigation revealed that he was still breathing.
“Good,” Beth said quietly. She gathered up the scattered contents of the man’s bag, including the broken camera, and heaved the man up, securing him to her jetpack’s harness. “You and I need to have a conversation with the Skymarshal I think.”
Beth engaged her jetpack, grabbing the rope as she ascended and taking the grappling hook with her.
The noise of the jetpack might wake someone, but they’d find no evidence of anyone having been here (save for a bit of blood on the stone street).
Beth smiled to herself. Even if this was some move made by her patron, there was no way for them to prove it was her. This fellow likely hadn’t even gotten a good look at her face.
And actually, if this man was sent by her patron, that made beating the man senseless all the more satisfying.
“A Spectateur,” Nathanson confirmed aboard the ship, “With a spy’s modifications. Definitely one of ours.”
The Skymarshal glowered at the device.
“Are you certain?” she said flatly.
“Dead certain. Military Intelligence orders these beauties by the dozen, modifies them, then sends them back out as needed. We ‘ave one of our own on board I should think.”
Victoria crossed her arms. Military Intelligence knew she was out here, and they knew there was an operation in play, and the Admiral had made it clear they knew to keep their noses out of it. That was the whole point of bringing in a man from Milan, in her original vision of the plan. Even if the Italians knew who the Brits had in Venice, nobody from the Venetian office would be involved in this game, and could honestly claim total ignorance. This had all been arranged. So what in the hell was one of their own doing spying on Quirke?
“Is it possible it’s a mistake?” she wondered aloud, “Somebody at the Venice house just getting too curious and poking their nose where it didn’t belong, perhaps?”
“Maybe,” Nathanson replied, not realizing she was talking to herself, “S’pose the sensible thing to do is ask the man. He talking yet?”
“The good doctor, Ms. Lewis, has asked that he remain sedated for the time being,” Vic said picking a piece of the camera off the table and turning it in her hand, “lest he do further harm to his back.”
Nathanson chuckled, “Jackson did a number on ‘im, eh?”
“That she did, Mr. Nathanson. That she did,” Vic replaced the piece of the camera on the table, and left the workshop. As she made her way forward to the bridge, Victoria mulled this development over, letting the details steep under her focused attention.
It was not impossible that a man in the Venetian house had simply disobeyed orders, or misunderstood them. These things happened. People were people after all, and they made mistakes. It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last, that an operation had been endangered by professionals who stopped acting the part for only a moment.
On the other hand, she had already had her suspicions, and she found it hard to reconcile the mounting pile of coincidences. Milan, the Fliege, now this. A part of her wanted to believe it was all normal, this was the outfit’s first operation after all, and no operation went entirely to plan.
No. There were forces at play here. Forces within the British government, and they wanted her to fail.
This man, whether he came from the Venetian house or not, had been given orders to sabotage Quirke’s masquerade. No doubt was left in her mind.
She needed to react. No. No a reaction would mean tipping her hand. Letting on that she had stopped the operative and knew he was a British spy. But then, they would assume that anyway wouldn’t they? He wouldn’t return from his fact-finding mission (if that was all it was, Vic couldn’t be sure until she questioned him) and his superiors would have to assume she had him. True, it might be just as likely the embassy’s security had caught the fellow peeping, but you didn’t get anywhere in Military Intelligence without a readiness to assume the worse. They had to operate under the assumption that she had taken the man, because if they didn’t and they were wrong, they left themselves open later. They would assume he was alive too. He was most dangerous to them alive, so they would have to assume that.
Alive and talking.
Well, she had the first, and in time she could get the second.
Of course, it was doubtful he knew much, if anything, about what he was really doing. Much easier to convince a man in intelligence that it was a vital off the books mission than send an actual double agent. Not that Vic didn’t think there existed a certain number of operatives with questionable allegiances in Military Intelligence, that was to be expected in modern espionage, but those men would be too valuable to send on grunt missions when you could easily con a loyal man and not lose anything should it go pear-shaped.
She could react without tipping her hand. But how? Cancelling the operation?
If the goal of the counter-operation was to sabotage her’s, then she was determined to carry on.
What then? Doubling down perhaps? Maybe a larger target in the Balkans? If her adversary (whomever it was) had enough operational knowledge to burn an agent in Milan, then it was entirely possible there would be unpleasant surprises for her at the intended targets. A new target would be best. Something big, something to enrage the Turkish parliament, something no one would expect.
Before long she found herself stepping onto the bridge. Ms. Burrows looked up from her post and saluted smartly.
“Skymarshal, shall I report to London about the prisoner?” she asked.
“No, Ms. Burrows, there will be no report on the prisoner,” Victoria said quietly, gazing out at the dark clouds the ship was hiding in.
“But…Ma’am, we have to file-”
“No mention of the prisoner, Ms. Burrows,” Victoria turned away from the window, “Send to London that everything is proceeding on schedule. We’re moving to the next phase of the operation.”
Burrows looked concerned, but nodded and said, “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Good. Forward any response to my quarters. Mister Lal?”
The bearded man snapped to attention.
“You have the con for the evening. Put us on course for Zadar.”
Elizabeth Jackson crept quietly along the narrow passages surrounding the ship’s engine, up a ladder to a series of storerooms and maintenance accesses, finally coming to a small room where she slipped a cylindrical key into a small hole in the wall. The metal panel swung open, and before Beth could even see the D-engine behind it, a string of papers fell out to the floor.
Beth picked up one, then another, then dropped them back to the floor.
They all said roughly the same thing.
Waiting for reply.
Must we take drastic action?
Of course she had been stalling. How could she not. She had planned to not give them Qurike’s dossier until the mission was all but over, blame it on an inability to access the hidden messenger, and hope for the best. After the operative tonight though, it seemed her patron was not in a mood to wait on her.
She started punching keys.
British operative… she wasn’t sure what to say. Captured was the truth, but would it be better to say he’d been killed? They might stop sending people if they were getting their own men killed. Of course it was a fact that people involved in warfare, even the clandestine variety, do die. Quite often in fact. But there was always a type who never quite grasped that fact. Who sent agents on a mission and expected nothing to go wrong, for everyone to live, no muss no fuss. These were the sort who sat around fighting wars long done over a brandy and cigar, bemoaning how they would have served much better than those imbeciles in charge of the whole affair, if only the powers that be would recognize their genius. These were the sort who caved at the first bit of real bloodshed that didn’t go their way. If that was who she was dealing with, then perhaps transmitting their agent’s death would finally stop them.
But no, these weren’t that sort. The type of creature she was dealing with was one that would compromise a British agent in the field. They would have twice if she hadn’t stopped that fellow from poking around Quirke’s room.
If that was them. Had it been?
She finished keying the message
British operative captured attempting to investigate German envoy. You: y/n?
The message came back quickly.
Dossier on replacement envoy. Now.
Elizabeth grit her teeth and looked at her knuckles, bruised from the operative’s jaw. If he was working for them, and if he didn’t know it, then they had made her raise a hand against her own comrades, her own country.
The word “Treason” seemed to burn on the inside of her skull.
You: y/n? She keyed again.
Dossier Lieutenant. Came the response. Now. No more stalling.
She didn’t budge. You: y/n?
She sat, drumming her fingers on the edges of the alcove.
When the response came, she read it far enough to see that it was a threat, not an answer to her question, and she threw the switch to shut the D-engine down.
“No more games,” she growled.
She left the alcove, slamming the panel shut behind her. Then marched to the nearest wall mounted comm.
“Lieutenant Colonel Jackson for the Skymarshal, please,” she said when bridge comms responded.
“The Skymarshal has retired for the evening, Colonel,” replied the comms officer. Beth hung up and went to Vic’s quarters.
There is still time, a quiet voice at the back of her mind whispered, you could send them the dossier and all will probably be forgiven. After all, they sent one operative, they’ll probably send another. What harm can it really do?
She could still see the word, searing behind her eyes.
She knocked again.
If you do this, you will never fly again. That was the deal remember. You play the game and you keep flying. You’re going to be thrown out of the service if you do this.
She knocked a third time.
Victoria opened the door.
“Beth? I thought you were going to get some sleep. Do I have to make it an order again?” Vic yawned.
“Vic,” Beth hesitated, but it was now or never, “We have to talk.”
Victoria poured Elizabeth a cup of tea. She overfilled it, spilling a bit as she handed it off to her friend.
“Damn,” she swore under her breath, reaching for a towel, “I’ve become so accustomed to 0sc4r pouring tea perfectly. I’ll should make a point of pouring my own tea more often.”
Beth gave a half smile and nodded as she helped Vic clean the spill.
“Alright,” Vic yawned as she took her seat behind her desk, “What’s this about, Beth?”
Beth took a breath and steeled her nerves. Best to lay it bare from the start, “I’ve been informing on you for the last six months.”
She watched Vic’s face during the long pause that followed. Victoria was practically famous for her neutral expression, but the signs were there if you knew what you were looking for. The fleeting stiffness of her jaw, the flash of hurt behind her eyes.
Beth had known this would hurt her, but she had dared to hope Vic already knew, and had just been playing along for Beth’s sake. That she would slap her on the shoulder, they’d have a laugh, and Beth would feel so much better.
Vic hadn’t known, there was no pat on the shoulder, and Beth felt so much worse.
“To whom?” Vic asked in a voice that was neutral but sharp.
“I don’t know,” Beth tried to keep her own voice as neutral as Vic’s.
“You don’t know?” Vic nodded dispassionately.
“I was approached by someone claiming ‘a concerned patron’. I wasn’t in a position to question it, Vic,” Elizabeth implored.
“I see,” Vic paused, taking a long sip of tea, “And how much did you give this mystery person?”
“Not everything,” Beth insisted, “I gave them what they asked for, but I always tried to leave out anything they didn’t request specifically, or I delayed till it didn’t matter. Of course, I couldn’t always get around that.”
There was another pause. And then Vic asked, “Do they have our current position and course?”
“No, certainly not,” Beth answered.
“Did you give them Quirke?” Vic pressed.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Beth set her tea aside, she didn’t think she could drink it, “That’s why I came to you.”
“Very well,” Vic took another sip of tea. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, for all the world looking like a woman who hadn’t just been told her best friend had betrayed her. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, Lieutenant Colonel,” Beth noted the pointed use of her rank rather than her name, “What do they have on you?”
Beth took another breath before launching into the story.
“Do you remember last year, when I was stationed in Gibraltar? There is an officer’s ball there in July for the anniversary of the end of the War in the Straits. Last year’s was huge (“twenty years” and all that), and I was there of course. I was commanding the 5th Reconnaissance Wing there at the time. The ball was held at this hotel overlooking the water, it was a beautiful place.
“I was enjoying myself, talking to the other officers, having some fun with the enlisted personnel who’d managed to merit an invitation or just snuck in, when I was approached by a young couple. A junior officer from 1st Fleet with a beautiful woman on his arm. They invited me to join them at their table, and of course I accepted. He looked dashing and she looked gorgeous, how could I say no? We talked for a bit, then the young man asked me to dance. While on the dance floor, we made our intentions abundantly clear. I also inquired about the lady he was escorting, and he explained that she had expressed a similar interest.
“So I danced with the young man some more, danced with her, and soon dancing was becoming kissing, but they didn’t want to kiss or anything more than dance in the ballroom, and so we withdrew to a hotel room the young man had acquired for the evening. Maybe somewhere along the way they explained to me that they were not actually a couple, but if they did I didn’t hear it or just wasn’t listening. I had other things on my mind.
“We must have gotten carried away, stayed in the room too long I guess, because the woman’s husband came looking for us. He had a hotel manager open the door while the three of us were still…entwined, you see. The husband begins screaming at his wife, and the young officer who was apparently his batman. She was weeping, and the batman wasn’t far from tears himself, so I tried to handle it. I tell the husband to get out, and I don’t let him past me when he tries to grab his wife’s arm and pull her out of the bed, and he attempts to pull rank on me. He was, as it happens, some Vice-Admiral in 1st Fleet, and he orders me to get out of his way. There’s already a small crowd of confused and curious guests assembling in the hall, which makes him even crosser, and so he loudly shouts that he’s demanding satisfaction from the batman. The batman, poor boy, is terrified and sobbing at this point. He’s no more than 19 years old if he’s a day, and too young to lose his life in a duel. So I stand in the Vice-Admiral’s face (which made him very uncomfortable I think, I was still naked) and accept the challenge on the young man’s behalf.
“Maybe I should have stayed out of it, I don’t know, but within a quarter-hour, we’re on the beach, being handed pistols.
“I swear to you, Vic, I only shot to wound him, but he’d been drinking, and so had I. We both stumbled when we turned, and when it was done, He’d missed me and I’d put a hole through his eye. He wife was screaming, the batman was just staring in disbelief, and before I knew what was happening a pair of RMP men have me by the arms.”
“The husband was apparently very well liked, and very politically connected. I ended up in lock-up for two days before they sorted it out. It was a duel, so I was free to go, but the Vice-Admiral’s friends brought up my demerits with 3rd Fleet’s Command, and demanded I be dishonorably discharged from the Airborne Division.”
Vic raised an eyebrow, “3rd Fleet would never–”
“They did,” Beth growled, “They threw me to the wolves. All orders signed and witnessed, I was about to be discharged. I know because they showed me the paperwork. Some man, average looking bloke who sounded like he might have been from the North, black hair and a tailored suit. He claimed to be with Military Intelligence, but I was never quite sure. He brought all the orders to show me, even brought my Commanding Officer to verify that the papers were legitimate. The fellow explains in detail how the Vice-Admiral’s friends have every intention of having me blacklisted professionally. They meant to see to it I never flew again. I couldn’t let that happen, Vic. He tells me that the British Army has put me out to starve, but that his ‘patron’ could protect me. That he had enough pull with the right people to make the whole thing go away, but in return, I might be called upon to serve as their eyes and ears. ‘Just what you see and hear,’ he would say, ‘The occasional document. You need not do anything else.’
“So I said yes. They made the orders disappear, everyone involved pretended like it didn’t happen. I was relieved of my command in Gibraltar, but not discharged, just transferred to London, officially on leave. A few months later, you contacted me about this Italian mission, and a few months after that, my ‘patron’ contacted me with instructions to tell him what your plan in Italy entailed.”
Vic took a moment ensure she maintain her composure before asking, “And you gave it to them?”
Beth looked away, out the window at the clouds drifting lazily past. She looked back to Vic, “I wanted to keep flying. I don’t know what else to say.”
There was another pause, longer than the previous, before Victoria Winthrop opened her line to the bridge comms. “Ms. Burrows?”
A young man with a Argentinian accent responded, “Ms. Burrows had to step out, Ma’am, this is Vazquez. How can I assist you?”
“Tell Mr. Lal: I require an armed escort for Ms. Jackson. She’s to be confined to quarters.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Vazquez replied before Vic closed the line.
Beth opened her mouth to speak, but Vic held up a hand to silence her.
They waited in silence until a knock on the door announced the arrival of Elizabeth’s escort.
Again Beth tried to say something, “Victoria, I–”
“To your quarters, Lieutenant Colonel,” Vic snapped.
“Vic, it was–”
“Get. Out.” she hissed.
When Beth was gone, Vic turned her chair to face the window, looking at her reflection, the clouds beyond, then back to the reflection. She put a hand to her temple, trying to message the fury and pain away.
It wasn’t working.
Dissatisfactory grunting was quickly becoming Issac’s favorite expression. It possessed a boundless utility, implying any number of things, positive or negative, without having to put forth any thought whatsoever. Simply fantastic as far as Issac was concerned.
“How did you sleep, Herr Schultz?”
“How was your breakfast, Herr Schultz?”
“Herr, Schultz, How are you enjoying Venice so far?”
“I’ll just have the car brought around, Herr Schultz.”
The lack of thought put into the conversation freed him to think about the meetings he’d be attending today at the Palazzo Ducale. He’d already drawn a few conclusions over breakfast. Issac was no politician, but he had been reading diplomatic dispatches to and from Berlin long enough to have a basic understanding of the game. It made sense that the Italians would want meetings over control of the Adriatic to take place in Venice, particularly at the Palazzo Ducale, from which Doges had dominated that sea for hundreds of years. A move meant to put the Turks on the defensive from the beginning of the summit, certainly.
Regardless, Issac had to look to his own staff. The Kaiser’s Ambassador to the Italian court, Baldrik Frey, he had met the previous evening. A wide, balding man with an enviable mustache, Baldrik had been in Venice for a week already, awaiting Issac’s (or at least the special envoy’s) arrival. He was a man who like to talk, smiled easily, and Issac found him pleasant enough, if a bit vapid at times. Baldrik had lived in Italy for the last 15 years, though he’d spent only the last five as ambassador. Issac had read in his dossier that he had come to Bologna as boy for schooling, and had fallen in love with the country. He was a good friend of nearly everyone at the Italian King’s court (including the King) which made it very likely he would favor Italian interests at this summit. This was a part of the reason for the special envoy, no doubt. His secretary, some cousin of his named Johan, was the opposite. Quiet, dower, and vaguely off-putting in his mannerisms. The military attache, who had arrived with Baldrik, was an old Colonel named Gertrude Stein. She was a woman of discipline, that much was clear as day. Her hair had gone grey and her face had wrinkled, but her spine was straight and her body was lean. Many old officers allowed themselves to grow fat and soft, such was the benefit of cushy political assignments, but Stein had clearly kept herself in tip-top condition. She smiled as easily as the Ambassador, but Issac found her gaze just as unsettling as Johan’s.
Issac had been asked several times by the ambassador and his staff what the Kaiser’s official stance on the subject, “Just keep them talking for now, until I have a good sense of who our true friends at the table are. Officially the Kaiser doesn’t play favorites, and that will be the strategy for the day.”
“Surely we aren’t expected to treat these Turks as we would our Italian friends?” Baldrik bellowed, incredulous, “The kingdoms of Italy have been closely tied to our people since the days of the Holy Roman Empire. These Turks on the other hand…I’ve too many friends in old Austria to trust these heathens, good sir.”
“That is why I’m here,” Issac growled, very much into his character at this point, “And you will not offend our allies. Is that clear?”
Baldrik sulked but did not protest. Colonel Stein said nothing, but Issac was almost certain he saw the hint of a smile pass over her lips.
The Turks worried him as well. British Intelligence on the Turkish military was woefully inadequate. Issac had been given the names and ranks of those in their delegation, but that was just about it. Very few specifics had made it into the Dossier. Their Ambassador to Italy was well known at least. Aleksander Gavrilović. He was a Serb whose family had supported the Reclamation, collaborating with the Janissary to secure the Turks position there. It was assumed that he was not very well liked at home, because he had not returned to Serbia in almost ten years. Issac thought it might be just as likely that he fell in love with Italy just as Baldrik had, but it was easy to assume dire circumstances when dealing with the Turkish Empire. The military advisor with him though was almost entirely unknown. Parushta Youssef, the name was Egyptian, and his rank was listed as equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel, but MI’s dossier had no family history, not personal politics, just a sparse list of battles. Very few for someone of his rank especially. Perhaps a battlefield promotion?
When the cars came around to the embassy gates, and the delegation began disembarking for the Palazzo Ducale, Issac found himself riding with Colonel Stein. She lounged in her seat across from Issac, crossing her legs and smiling openly once inside the car. She looked like a fox about to greet a wayward chicken on a dark night. Issac resisted the urge to shudder.
“You seem nervous, Herr Schultz,” Stein mused.
“Is it obvious?” Issac attempted his own smile, not sure how convincing it was yet.
“Not terribly,” she straightened a seam on her trousers with her long fingers, “You become quite tense whenever Herr Frey asks you about strategy for the conference, or the Kaiser’s orders. I hope there are no surprises in store.”
“Surprises?” Issac raised an eyebrow.
“Baldrik will be most cross if Berlin plans to pivot to Istanbul on this matter. It may affect his duties if that is what you plan to order him to do.” The Colonel’s face was stone, only her fingers moved, nails tapping slowly against her knee.
Issac decided to seize on that, “That is what has me worried, Colonel. As I said, the Kaiser doesn’t wish to play favorites between allies.”
Stein nodded, her eyes relaxed, allowing her smile to spread to her whole expression, “I hope you have a plan then. Baldrik may not be capable of putting aside his love for the land of Caesar.”
Issac smiled himself, chuckling, “Rest assured, there is a plan. I just hope I know what I’m doing.”
Stein put a hand on Issac’s knee, “I’m sure you’ll do well. The Foreign Minister must have thought you up to the task at least.”
“Thank you, madam.”
“Not at all.”
The Palazzo Ducale adjoined the Basilica of St. Mark, a great cathedral topped with massive domes, the outside adorned with bright paintings and dynamic statues of saints. It was a decoratively busy and complicated building, and made the simple lines and blue tiled roof of the palace look plain by comparison. The pillars and arches of the ground level were architecturally impressive, but lacked the gravitas of the basilica next door. Issac couldn’t help but wonder if this was deliberate. If the Doges of Venice had built something that was impressive technically, but paled in comparison to the beauty and wonder of god. Or had the palace been here before the Republic? Issac did not know off hand.
The German motorcade arrived just as the Turkish delegation was disembarking from their own. Issac spotted the Turkish ambassador right away. Aleksander Gavrilović was a shorter man than he had expected. He was clean shaven, dark haired, with skin a healthy olive complexion, he had a look more mediterranean than slavic. Issac wondered if he had family in Italy. Behind him came his military advisor, Lieutenant Colonel Parushta Youssef. Tall, pinched, with a long, stern face and prosthetic eye. The connections of the eye to his skull seemed a bit crude and grotesque, nothing like the polished work that one normally saw coming out of the East, particularly among the Turkish aristocracy.
“Herr Gavrilović, a pleasure to finally meet you,” Issac said as he exited the car.
“Herr Schultz, I presume?” the Ambassador replied, bounding over to Issac’s car with an energy Issac had not expected, “The pleasure is all mine.”
Issac was about to extend the Kaiser’s good wishes when he saw the hulk coming up behind Gavrilović, and his words died in his throat. This had not been in the dossier. Of course, Issac had heard stories about the Janissary, but he had not expected to see one here.
The metal creature was eight feet tall at least, but the shoulders appeared hunched so that the thing’s almost featureless face was on a level with 0sc4r’s (at a mere seven feet). The janissary’s chest and limbs were an almost beautiful network of interlocking bronze colored plates that seemed to catch fire in the morning light.
Issac watched the thing as it followed Gavrilović to the doors of the palace, where the Italian guards objected, immediately and strongly, to the janissary’s presence.
“Not to worry, ladies and gentlemen, Zoraster is merely here as my bodyguard. I assure you, he has been disarmed of all his usual weapons. I will not say he is harmless, but he is certainly not here to fight you.”
A smile crept across Youssef’s face.
Issac could have laughed.
So much for the Turks being on the defensive.
Round one to them.
It took almost a quarter hour before the Italians could get a man in charge on the scene. A rotund Sicilian man whom the others addressed as Signor Baroncelli came out eventually to speak with Gavrilović and Youssef about perhaps leaving the janissary outside the hall, so as not to disrupt the proceedings.
While this was happening, Issac had time to study the automata, though he knew it wasn’t a true automata. There was a human pilot…of sorts.
The new janissary was actually a major reason for strife between the Turks and the other great powers. Several nations were willing to arm automata for use in battle. Several more were willing to allow the addition of mechanical parts to human bodies to make up for an injury or deficiency. A colleague of Issac’s at Cambridge had been given a mechanical lung to replace a cancerous one, and the Kaiser himself had taken a mechanical arm to replace one that had been withered since birth. This was considered well and proper, but the Janissary Corp was something wholly unacceptable to the civilized nations of Europe.
Beneath the bronze colored armor and mechanisms of movement, behind that featureless face, there was a human mind, but nothing more. A brain, a bit of the skull, perhaps even a few more odds and ends, but that was it, not enough of a person to live outside the metal husk. Never for very long anyway.
Legally, such a creation was not considered a living thing in most places, not even in Germany. The First Nations of the Americas did, but they erroneously considered all automata to be alive. It was rumored that the Chinese were on the cusp of legally recognizing automata as a ‘state of being,’ as absurd as that notion was, and Issac understood that there was a similar notion among the Turks. The Janissary were no longer human, and would never be again, but they were not considered objects like other automata.
And Issac could clearly see that this was indeed not like any other automata he had seen. It moved like a man. Most automata only moved when they needed, and the rest was just the vibrations of engines. Some, like 0sc4r, were coded to appear more human than the common working machine, and so would produce such human gestures as idly looking about, or a mild tic like drumming one’s fingers. The janissary, by contrast, fidgeted constantly, glancing suspiciously at the other attendees, shifting its weight, checking all the lines of escape with, if not nervousness, a tension foreign to automata. Issac could very well believe there was a man under that metal, as ridiculous as that seemed.
Eventually, Gavrilović agreed to keep his bodyguard just outside the hall, and the Turkish delegation was finally allowed through.
Signor Baroncelli waved most of the German party through without incident, including 0sc4r, pausing only to firmly clasp hands with Ambassador Frey, whom it seemed he was well acquainted with. Frey took a moment to introduce Issac.
“…and this is our Kaiser’s special envoy, Herr Schultz. Herr Schultz, this is Signor Baroncelli, Head of Security for this conference.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” the man grabbed Issac’s arm and began a handshake the rippled through Issac’s whole body, “I have been so looking forward to meeting you.”
“Likewise, Signore,” Issac managed through the violent shaking. When Baroncelli finally released him, it was only to gingerly take the hand of Colonel Stein, kiss her fingers lightly and offer his “personal thanks, and the thanks of His Majesty’s government” for joining them here today.
Stein did not return the fat man’s smile, but she kissed him on both cheeks and thanked him for his hospitality.
When Issac made it inside, the Italians and Turks were already shouting at one another. Issac spoke Italian reasonably well, but this argument was going too fast for him to make out all the particulars. Something about the history of Rome, the Crusades, an insult to someone’s mother was definitely delivered but Issac was at a loss to identify whose mother.
The Turks were giving just as good as they received, but there was something to be said for insults hurled in at least three languages. Gavrilović in Serbian, a secretary of his in Turkish, an aide de camp in Arabic. Youssef was silent, though his look of utter disgust could have easily been used by gardeners to kill unwanted flora.
Issac stared at this pandemonium, his heart sinking, wondering how he would ever even get the chance to mislead anyone if this was to be the tone of the conference.
“Hem-hem,” came a small cough at his side. It was Stein. She was looking at Issac intently.
At first, Issac wasn’t sure what she meant to imply, until he realized that Frey was already joining the shouting match on the Italian’s side.
She expected him to call the meeting to order. He was the special envoy after all. They had all been waiting on him.
“Lords and Ladies, shall we come to order?” Issac declared loudly.
There was no change. No one had heard him.
“My lords and ladies, shall we come to order!?” Issac shouted, but still his voice failed to do more than be absorbed into the cacophony.
Issac wasn’t sure what to do. He looked around for a bell, a glass, anything to bang for attention.
His gaze fell on 0sc4r.
“0sc4r?” Issac said quietly.
“Yes, *click* Herr Schultz?” it replied.
“How loud can you whistle?” Issac asked putting his hands over his ears. Stein noticed and did likewise.
A deafening screech pierced the din of the room. Issac all of them had stopped shouting by the time to whistle faded away.
“That loud, *click* sir.”
Issac removed his hands and shook his head. “Very good.”
Issac stepped forward under the gaze of the startled and annoyed glares of the assembled attendees.
“As I was saying, my lords and ladies: shall we come to order?” 0sc4r pulled Issac’s seat out and he took it. He was pleased to note that each and every one of the delegates did likewise.
I’ll be thrice damned, Issac thought to himself, I might actually pull this off.
“You cannot possibly expect us to give up territory for such a small sum,” Gavrilović scoffed.
The Italian side of the table began loudly grumbling, but fortunately 0sc4r’s whistle was still ringing in their ears, which kept them from breaking into a new shouting match. The Italians, having laid out their proposal, wanted Istria for a start, the coast of Dalmatia, and the islands in between. In exchange, they were prepared to offer an amount of money that Issac had almost actually gasped at. He knew that matters of state involved the movement of millions of pounds, naturally, but it is one thing to be aware of the fact, and quite another to be in the room whilst it was being spent. He wasn’t entirely sure where the pound was in relation to the mark these days, but he thought the figure was somewhere around 15 million pounds. This seemed like quite a lot to Issac, and the Italians clearly thought so too.
“I hardly think 25 million goldmarks is a small sum,” said the Italian foreign minister, a man named Ricci who looked like a bank clerk, “Especially for so little territory.”
“The Sultan regards all his holdings as precious to his empire,” Gavrilović said frowning, “You might as well name a price for one of his own children.”
“I wonder how the people of Istria would respond to being referred to as the Sultan’s ‘children,’” Ricci said, hardly making the tactful effort to disguise his sarcasm. Gavrilović chose to ignore it.
“We are prepared to offer a deal where Italian ships may conduct business freely, without taxation, at a sizable number of ports in Istria and Dalmatia. It should allow your people access to that which they desire while keeping the border unchanged and uncomplicated.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Ricci snapped, “Trade is well and good, but it is the view of His Majesty’s government, and mine personally, that these people are Italians! We cannot abide seeing their land occupied and the their citizen’s mistreated.”
“Mistreated? What are you implying?” It was the Turkish side of the table on the verge of shouting now.
“Imply? Nothing,” Ricci snapped his fingers. An aid brought him a folder of papers, and Ricci made a grand gesture of opening it and flipping through the pages. “We have reports of the widespread seizure of property, the burning of pro-Italian publications, and the assault and jailing of those advocating Italian sovereignty.”
“You cannot dress up police actions against terrorists as oppression of an Italian state that does not exist.”
“So you do not deny these accusations?”
“I refuse to dignify them with a response.”
This went back and forth for some time. Ricci would focus on Janissary atrocities, Gavrilović would deflect to talk about trade concessions. Issac was reminded of the worst of the his college’s debates he’d ever attended. Meetings nominally about one thing, but all parties clearly there with very different things they intended to discuss. Though at university, the worst case scenario was bruised egos and six months of departmental drama at most (Save the case of Professor Bullsworth and his etheric field calculations, which was still a point of heated discussion around Cambridge some five years on). Here though…nations hung in the balance.
This can’t be how it works, Issac thought, bitter men in back rooms, having two different arguments. Is this how wars start?
“Gentlemen, please,” Issac said standing. He took a moment to compose his own answer, which he noticed added a small, but nicely dramatic, pause between when the room went silent and he started speaking. Whether this was because of his alleged position as an emissary of the Kaiser, or another dividend paid towards the threat of 0sc4r’s whistle was anyone’s guess , “Let’s try to be civil. We are after all, here to defuse the situation. Now; Minister Gavrilović, our Italian friends have offered 25 million German goldmarks for the territory. Is the problem the price or the territory?”
“Both,” Gavrilović said, nodding to Mr. Ricci, “The territory is too vast, and the price is too low.”
“How much territory is acceptable then?” Issac leaned over the table, bracing himself lightly against its surface with extended fingers.
Gavrilović thought for a moment, “Istria, for 40 million goldmarks.”
“That is half the territory for almost double the price. Unacceptable.” Ricci shouted.
“Gentlemen, please!” Issac bellowed. That’s a start, we can negotiate from there, Issac thought, before remembering that he was here to prevent consensus, not create it. “It has been a trying morning. Shall we take a brief recess?”
“Can I get you anything?” Victoria offered as Commander Lal took his seat, “Tea?”
“No. Thank you, Ma’am,” he said. Victoria took a moment to examine the man more closely. She’d seen his record of course, and had requested him as a navigator for her ship based an a line of recommendations that stretched from here all the way back to London. He was a shorter man, not thin by any means but he carried himself with the effortless grace of a gentleman.
“Very well. I assume you’re wondering why I asked you to have Jackson escorted to her quarters under guard.”
“I have a guess, but I am reluctant to…,” Vishram hesitated.
“By all means,” Victoria said spreading her hands.
“You have reason to believe she is the traitor,” said Vishram.
Vic raised an eyebrow. “‘The’ traitor?”
“Do go on.”
“The agent in Milan becoming exposed could have been coincidence, as could the apprehending of a British spy observing our own operation (these things do happen, after all),” Vishram made a vague gesture with his hand, “but the fact that you asked me to alter our course from Pula to Zadar implies that you believe the operation to be compromised to some degree. Confining a crew member to quarters after that reads fairly obviously I think.”
Victoria smiled, “Very good Mr. Lal. Tell me though: do you think Ms. Jackson is a double agent?”
Vishram paused, “I have never had cause to doubt her loyalty to the mission, but I highly doubt you would confine her without good reason.”
“A prudent answer. How should we proceed?” Victoria asked.
“I beg your pardon, Ma’am?” Vishram blinked.
“I am curious,” the Skymarshal leaned back in her chair, steepling her fingers, “How would you proceed, given the current complications to the mission?”
Vishram paused for a moment, shrug his shoulders and said, “I would change the target, but you’ve done so once already. It would be good to know how much Ms. Jackson gave them, but since we cannot in trust anything she says in good faith, I would change the target once again, but I would tell no one, and I would wait to change course until we were much closer to Zadar.
“Then, I would interrogate the man we have in our infirmary. Jackson is in custody, but if this mission is being assailed by members of the British government, as it must be, there may be more surprises in store. Perhaps another double agent? What about mechanical sabotage begun while we were in port? There are far too many unknowns.”
“All important steps that must be taken. On that we are agreed,” Victoria nodded, “But you forgot one important item.”
Vishram blinked, “Did I, Ma’am?”
“Indeed,” the Skymarshal said standing. Vishram quickly followed her to his feet. “I will need a new First Lieutenant for the duration of this mission.”
It took half a moment for Vishram to draw the connection. When he did, he shook his head, “Ma’am, I am flattered, but there are several more qualified officers aboard.”
“Nonsense,” Victoria said as she stepped around the table, “Higher ranked, perhaps, but I’ve seen your record, Mr. Lal. Distinguished Service in Gibraltor, Afganistan, the Arabian Sea, as well as several other citations for valor and general excellence in the field of Airship Navigation. Thrice wounded in battle, two of those while risking your life to save a comrade who would most certainly have died. Believe me when I say, Mr. Lal, when I chose the crew of this ship I did not just let anyone aboard. As a matter of fact, the Admiral himself has spoken so well of you, I had a suspicion that perhaps he was hinting I marry you.”
Vishram flushed, “Ma’am! I–”
“Relax, Commander. I am not currently in the market for a husband,” the Skymarshal said with a broad smile. She extended a hand to Vishram, adding, “The job is yours, if you will accept it.”
Vishram hesitated, then slowly shook the Victoria’s hand, “I will. For now. Until a more suitable replacement for Ms. Jackson can be found.”
“A cautious answer, but I will accept it,” Victoria said, “First order, report back to the bridge and take the con. Mr. Mills will take over as chief navigator for now. Inform him along with the rest of the command staff of the change, and keep us on a steady course for Zadar.”
“Aye, Ma’am. But…,” he hesitated.
“Speak your mind, Mr. Lal. It’s the first officer’s job to question the captain’s intent every now and again.”
“Shouldn’t the announcement come from you, Ma’am? I only ask because it is standard procedure.”
“Normally, yes,” Victoria said as she walked to the door. Vishram fell in behind her as she exited her quarters. “I have some other business to see to for now. I’m going to speak to our ship’s doctor about waking up our at-once prisoner and patient.”
Admiral William Caldwell, Commander of His Majesty’s Third Fleet, leaned back in his chair as the analysts from Intelligence laid out the situation in the Americas.
“Our sources on the ground are reporting more skirmishes along the Spanish border with the Inca. The IHS Kon and Apocatequill have been deployed from Vilcabamba and are headed North. In response the Spanish are mobilizing their El Cid battle group out of Panama City.”
“What’s the composition of El Cid?” Asked Admiral Black, Commander of His Majesty’s Second Fleet.
“Three Barclay class heavy battleships, one Isabella class carrier, seven Conquistador class destroyers, and about a dozen lighter support craft,” answered another man from intelligence reading from an open folder.
Black shrugged at Caldwell, “They might have a chance.”
“How serious are they?” Caldwell asked.
“We can’t be sure,” the intelligence man who was standing in front of his projected map said with a slanted tone. Implying he had a very strong opinion.
“Best guess?” Caldwell pressed.
The man with the folder looked over to the corner of the room, where a gentleman with a cane nodded, and the folder man answered, “We don’t think El-Cid is under orders to engage, but we have a detailed profile of their commanding officer, and we absolutely expect him to do something foolish if he meets the any Incan ships, no matter the size.”
“So the Inca and the Spanish have another spat, how is this news?” Lord Admiral Anderson said with a yawn.
“The Americans,” The man with the cane said with flatly.
“What’s that? Can’t hear you from all the way over there M,” quipped Anderson sarcastically.
The man in the corner chuckled, tapped his cane and nodded to his man at the projector.
“Yes, sir. Slide please,” the man said to the secretary at the back of the room. The slide that replaced the map showed a high altitude photograph of a river valley. “What you see here, ladies and gentlemen, is troop movement in First Nations territory, mostly Kwahare militia near the Mexican border. No airships in play as yet, but we have a source that says the tribes are meeting, as we speak, to answer an ambassador of the Incan Hegemony on whether the First Nations will back them if it comes to war in Central America.”
“Oh, bloody hell,” Anderson sighed.
“And how do we expect that to play out?” Black asked, absently straightening her sleeves.
“Unclear,” said the folder man.
The projector man continued, “We suspect they’ll tentatively commit to the Inca, but how much that commitment will translate to in terms of manpower or aide is…very uncertain.”
“Very well,” Anderson stood, collecting himself. Black and Caldwell followed suit, but the fellow in the corner did not. “I assume you want something from Airborne or we wouldn’t be having this meeting. So what is it?”
“Intelligence would like to propose the Seacole battle group be deployed on a training exercise,” the folder man said.
“A ‘training exercise?’” Black asked.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied.
Caldwell felt he had to ask, “How will that do anything other than escalate our problem? The last thing we want is another war in the new world.”
The projector man answered, “We only need the battle group to put a ship fifty miles from the coast of Panama. After that we…,” The man was interrupted by the tapping of a cane. He continued, “How much do you wish to know, Lord Admiral?”
“That’s plenty I think,” Anderson said removing his glasses to rub the bridge of his nose, “I assume Seely has signed off on this?” Both men nodded. “Then fine. We’ll send the order out within the hour. Will that be all gentlemen?”
“Yes, thank you, Sir,” both men began gathering up their materials.
The man in the corner came to his feet and addressed William, “Could you hold back for a bit? I have a quick question for you.”
Black gave Caldwell a look, but all Caldwell could do was shrug to her.
As the rest of the Admiralty vacated the room, the man with the cane opened a small box, wound up a crank inside, and then set it on a window sill to tick down softly.
“Still paranoid, Admiral?” Caldwell asked smiling.
“Always, but more so in the last few days,” the man, Melville, whose official codename was ‘M’ but most in the Airborne simply referred to him as ‘The Admiral’, returned to his seat in the corner of the room and spent a good five seconds looking at Caldwell, “I had the most intriguing conversation with the Secretary of State for War last night. Seely had the most vivid memory of you authorizing the deployment of two of our chatter-code cylinders for private use.”
Caldwell shrugged, “And?”
“And,” the Admiral parroted, “I’d like to know where they are.”
“Vice Admiral Vasquez sent me a request for them. One for the Falkland base and the other for his residence on the mainland. It didn’t seem untoward, and Vasquez is a man we trust. I understand he has a little brother aboard that little pet project of yours.”
The Admiral nodded, “It’s true, Vasquez is a man we trust, and you noted as much in your request. But when was the last time you actually spoke to Vasquez?”
Caldwell felt a chill run the length of his spine. He searched his memory frantically, it couldn’t possibly have been that long ago. “I…I don’t actually recall. I couldn’t have been that long ago.”
“Six months ago at the Falkland base inspection was the last time I recalled seeing you together,” the Admiral said, his tone serious and his frown obvious, “I on the other hand spoke to him on the wireless earlier this morning. I asked him about those code cylinders, and he had no idea what I was talking about.”
Victoria opened the door into the infirmary and walked in, much to the alarm of nurse Lewis and Major Barrington, who seemed to be stepping away from each other very quickly.
“Skymarshal Winthrop!” Lewis squeaked, hastily distancing herself from the major, “I…What can I do for you, ma’am.”
“Just looking for our guest, Ms. Lewis,” said Vic.
“In the back, Skymarshal, with the doctor,” the young girl pointed to the door that led to the operating theater.
“Very good,” she said walking past the two of them. She didn’t intend to mention the kiss that she had interrupted, or the location of Major Barrington’s hands when she’d entered. Instead, she meant to join the ruse, pretending she’d seen nothing. There were rules against this sort of fraternization aboard an airship, but Vic had never felt a great need to enforce them. Royal Airborne Division ships could spend months, sometimes a year, on assignment, and it was common for airmen to get close in that time. There was the official stance yes, but Vic had never met a captain who really believed in it. Of course, that sort of attitude may have been what led to Beth’s problem in Gibraltar, and her eventual blackmailing. Perhaps now more than ever, it was best to take a firm stance, “Major, I’m sure you have duties to attend to down in the hanger.”
“Ma’am?” Barrington asked.
“Dismissed,” Vic said, not unkindly she thought, but both the major and nurse looked a bit crestfallen. She put it out of her mind, unsealed the theater’s door and entering. A tech had rigged the theater’s door on her order, so that it only unlocked from the outside. The ship was too small to have a proper brig, much less one with an infirmary, so the infirmary was forced to double as the brig today. Doctor Catalina de Silva, ship’s surgeon, stood over the table at the center of the room, reapplying bandages over the tiny splints for the spy’s broken fingers.
“Doctor,” Victoria said, announcing her presence.
“Skymarshal,” the doctor replied without looking up. She finished tying off the bandages, wiped her hands on a small cloth, and turned to Victoria, her prosthetic leg whirring as she pivoted, “What can I do for you, Ma’am?”
“I need to speak to the patient,” Vic took a long look at this fellow. The boy (he couldn’t have been more than 20) had curly brown hair and freckles covering his cheeks. A thin scar, barely noticeable really, ran the length of his jaw on the right side. There was a bruise just above it, no doubt where Beth had hit him, and all but three of his fingers were broken.
“I cannot recommend waking him. After a fall like that-” the doctor began but Vic held up her hand.
“I understand doctor, but I have questions that need answering,” Vic paused, looking again at the boy’s face, “Do whatever else you can for him, but there are things I need to know.”
Dr. Silva sighed, mumbled something in Spanish, and limped over to her bag. Vic had inquired about the doctor’s leg to the Admiral, but apparently the incident had happened in Incan Territory, mostly beyond his reach, and what reports there were seemed highly contradictory. All the same, the doctor had been vetted and vouched for, a superb surgeon who had once performed an emergency operation on the Duke of York himself, when the HMS Cumberland had come under fire from pirates.
The Admiral vouched for Beth though, Vic thought to herself as the doctor prepared a syringe. The Admiral had known Beth just as well as her, she’d thought, and if Beth had been a double agent, who was to say more hadn’t slipped through? Perhaps she was being paranoid though.
The doctor returned with the syringe.
“My protest will be officially logged,” she said as she lined up the needle. Victoria was about to respond, but the doctor didn’t hesitate, pumping the clear liquid into the young man’s arm.
It took almost no time for the man to awaken. He groaned through gritted teeth, but said nothing as he came to. His eyes came into focus on Victoria and the doctor standing over him. There was a small clatter as he tested his restraints. Not seriously, but enough to verify that he was shackled to the bed. He settled into a defiant look, staring at Victoria, rightly assuming she was in charge.
“I once saw a swallow that nests in Guildford,” Victoria said, her voice and face as neutral as possible. The boy blinked. His face was still, but his eyes were full of confusion. Vic repeated herself, “I once saw a swallow that nests in Guildford.”
The boy still said nothing.
“For god’s sake boy ‘I once saw a swallow that nests in Guildford!’” Vic snapped at him.
He flinched, and shyly replied, “I once saw a hawk eat a swallow in Weybridge.”
Vic nodded, “Good, we’re getting somewhere.”
“What is this?” the boy was openly confused now.
“Move your toes,” Doctor Silva ordered.
“What?” He asked.
“Move your toes, if you can. The fall was not kind to you but I’m hoping you’ll still walk,” she explained.
The young man did as asked, and wiggled his bare toes.
“Good. Now don’t over exert yourself, and answer this woman’s questions. You’ll be fine,” The doctor retreated back to her bag, rubbing a hand on her leg above the prosthetic. She produced a large bottle of milk white fluid, and poured herself a tin cup full of it.
“What’s your name?” Vic asked. The prisoner shook his head.
“Where am I first. If it please you, Ma’am,” he said.
“You’re aboard my ship. I’m a Skymarshal of the Royal Airborne Division, so I outrank you I’m guessing, and I’m ordering you to tell me who you are and what exactly you thought you were doing,” Vic tried not to raise her voice, but she was growing impatient. It was barely noon, but it had already been a long day. She’d not slept a wink after confining Beth to quarters. She’d made it through the meeting with Vishram well enough, but Vishram was bright and easy to talk to. This promised to be a difficult conversation if the young operative played games with her. “This is a matter of the utmost security, young man, and I expect you to cooperate.”
The MI agent nodded, “James, Ma’am.”
“James. Good. What were you doing outside the embassy James?” Vic crossed her arms, looking down her nose at the young man. She’d learned long ago that men often found her height intimidating, and she made good use of it from time to time.
“Reconnaissance, Ma’am,” James explained, “New German special envoy for the Adriatic summit.”
“Do you often go on unauthorized reconnaissance missions James?” Vic asked, adding just a bit of venom to the word ‘unauthorized.’
James was about to answer, but stopped, pausing for a long moment.
“I heard you, Ma’am,” James said, “If you don’t mind me saying, Ma’am, I’ve seen this production from that side. You want me to violently deny that the mission was unauthorized, because you want me to tell who authorized it. Which means you think my orders were from someone with ill intent. Towards our own, I mean.”
Vic gave the boy a small smile for his quick thinking, “Such clever partners I have for conversation this morning. Quite refreshing. You and my new First Lieutenant would get on I think. Very well then: was it authorized or not?”
“It was authorized, Ma’am,” the boy nodded, “Orders came through straight from London that morning.”
“Orders from whom?” Vic asked.
“You’d have to ask London, Ma’am,” the boy tried to lean forward, which was difficult and painful, but he managed to at least somewhat draw himself up, “I got my orders, I carried out the mission. Nothing seemed untoward, and the orders were all confirmed by MI when we bounced them back.”
“You bounced it back to MI? With a code from London? Not a way-station?” Vic tapped a finger on her chin, thinking.
“Yes, Ma’am. Wanted to be sure, since we’d gotten a message from Milan last month to lay low during the summit,” the boy explained.
“That…is interesting,” said Vic, “Thank you, James.”
“Absolutely unacceptable!” Minister Ricci was shouting.
Issac watched the man stomping furiously back and forth across the room. He looked over to Stein, who rolled her eyes. Baldrik Frey was merely nodding in agreement.
“It is my opinion, Herr Schultz,” Baldrik said, turning to Issac, “That the Turks are indeed being unreasonable. I doubt they plan to part with Istria or Dalmatia, at any price.”
“They named a price,” Issac said, shaking his head, “Sig. Ricci is merely unwilling to pay it.”
“Herr Schultz,” the minister said, trying to calm himself, “I should think a man such as yourself would understand. We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied by these…these…” he struggled to find the appropriate insult, “Muslims!” was the most he could manage.
Issac had to fight to keep the frown off his face.
“Be that as it may,” Issac couldn’t help but growl, “You’ve laid out an offer, they’ve laid out a counter-offer. All that’s left is to haggle and meet halfway.”
Issac looked to Balrik, and Stein, gesturing with his eyes for them to back him up. Stein nodded, Baldrik did not. Stein had been right after all; Baldrik’s bias would no doubt be an ongoing problem for negotiations. Good, Issac reminded himself, the point is sabotage, remember.
He did remember. And yet, if he sabotaged the potential for peace…he began to realize how many might die because of this mission. But then again, how bad would a war between Britain and an alliance of Germany, Italy, and the Turks. There was likely to be a death toll no matter how things went here. How many lives is peace worth?
“Herr Schultz?” Issac shook his head, Ricci, had been talking.
“I’m sorry, say again,” Issac mumbled, “I was distracted.”
“Herr Schultz, you cannot expect the Italian crown to pay so much,” Minister Ricci said, absolutely incredulous, “Thirty million goldmarks maybe, but forty is impossible. Even if His Majesty was willing, there isn’t enough in the discretionary budget for that.”
“Well we wouldn’t want to go over budget,” Issac mused sarcastically.
Baldrik, oblivious to sarcasm, enthusiastically nodded, “Of course. So what is the solution?”
Issac gave a dissatisfactory grunt, buying time to think. Maybe it was time to switch dance partners.
He stood. “I think I’ll go see our Turkish friends. See if I can’t get them to see some kind of reason. 0sc4r?”
“Yes *click*, Sir.”
Issac excused himself, assuring Ricci that he would not mention that the Italians couldn’t afford forty million goldmarks, “I wouldn’t want them to think we’re unable, just unwilling. You understand?”
“Of course,” said Issac.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like an escort, Herr Schultz?” Stein asked, who remained seated, “That janissary certainly makes me uneasy.”
“Oh…” Issac started, but failed to finish his reassurance. He had almost forgotten the janissary. “I imagine I’ll be fine. The monster may be intimidating, but we are all friendshere, yes?”
Stein nodded, that small smile back at the corner of her mouth. It made her look mischievous, full of an energy undiminished by age beneath that veneer of German professionalism.
So Issac left the small office Minister Ricce had set aside for their little meeting, and headed down the beautiful halls of the palace toward the rooms set aside for the Turkish delegation.
“0sc4r?” Issac whispered.
“Yes?” 0sc4r responded quietly.
“Can we talk here?” Issac asked.
“I would *click* not advise it.”
“Just tell me,” Issac slowed his pace, “Italy has holdings in North Africa, yes? Do I remember that right?”
“*Click* Indeed, sir. Italian North Africa consists of *click* the former French protectorate of Tunisia *click*, and the former Turkish territory of Tripoli.”
“Tripoli….do you think they’d ever part with it?” Issac asked.
“The *click* Italians, sir?”
“Yes,” Issac said, “What do you think?”
0sc4r stopped in his tracks, emitting a series of loud clicks followed by a whirring sound. A moment later he resumed walking and said, “No. *click* I am *click* almost certain they would not.”
Issac nodded, “Thank you, 0sc4r.”
He immediately felt silly for thanking the machine, but he decided it was a harmless gesture.
He knocked on the door of the interim Turkish office.
Mr. Youssef opened the door.
“Mr. Youssef, right?” Issac forced himself to smile in the face of the intimidating Egyptian, “Is Mr. Gavrilović in, I wish to speak to him.”
There was a narrowing of Youssef’s eyes, but he nodded and stepped to the side.
The room was absurdly opulent, like most in the Palazzo Ducale. The Turkish staff worked amidst gold trim and polished stone, ornately carved furniture with plush cushions, and art from the heady days of the Italian Renaissance. The automata janissary, huge as he was, seemed almost perfectly suited for the room, his armored skin shining as brightly as the gold. Issac could feel the hair of his neck stand on end, as the featureless face of the thing tracked his entrance.
“Herr Schultz!” Gavrilović called from a cream colored couch, “We were just talking about you.”
“All good things, I hope,” Issac said, taking an empty seat in a chair facing Gavrilović, trying to ignore the janissary.
“Naturally,” Gavrilović chuckled, “What do you have for us?”
Here I go, Issac thought, steeling himself, “What I have to tell you must be kept in the greatest confidence. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes, yes. Ahmed,” Gavrilović said, turning from Issac, “Take the staff on a tour of the palace. It is a beautiful place. Parushta, you stay.”
The janissary stirred, emitting a low mechanical growling.
“Yes, yes, you as well, Zoraster. The Italians probably won’t like you stalking the halls.”
The staff closed up their folders, disengaged a few devices, and followed a young man Issac presumed was Ahmed out of the room. When it was done, Gavrilović turned back to Issac.
“So, what is it we must talk about, Herr Schultz?” Gavrilović asked.
“I come first with assurances from the Kaiser,” Issac began, “We fully understand the desire of the Sultan to maintain the territory hard-fought by your troops. And while we have always been good friends with the Italian King, I find their obsession with the Adriatic…fatiguing.”
Gavrilović leaned forward, far more attentive, “Truly? And this is the position of your government, or just your own opinion?”
“The Kaiser’s official policy is that we are building an alliance, and are not to play favorites. But there are official policies, and there are actual policies,” Issac said confidently, “All the same, I want to see some kind of agreement reached. But that cannot happen so long as you are asking for forty million goldmarks.”
Gavrilović furrowed his brow, and folded his hands together elbows resting on his knees, “I understand. But I wasn’t lying, good sir. The Sultan cannot part with the land for a mere twenty-five million. The Balkans are worth more than the simple territory you see. They represent everything about our rebirth. Our revolution, our recovery, our final defeat of an ancient enemy, the Hapsburgs. We cannot just sell it within the living memory of those who bled for it.”
The janissary let out a whirring sound as it adjusted its stance.
“Metaphorically speaking,” Gavrilović added.
“Not even if you can reclaim another lost territory?” Issac leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers. Revanchism was a repugnant policy in his opinion, but it was an obsession that had driven the Turkish to take the Balkans, and the entire impetus for this conference was the Italian plans to take back the Adriatic states. It was a blind-spot for both parties.
Gavrilović gave Issac a curious look, then looked to Youssef, who mumbled something Issac couldn’t make out (perhaps in Turkish or Arabic) and shrugged. Gavrilović sat up, “Very well, Herr Schultz. You have my undivided attention.”
The Admiral was not a man to believe in coincidences. He was certain they happened, but in an abstract sort of way, the way one is aware that somewhere someone will win the lottery. It will happen, but almost certainly never to you.
“The price of grain is down in the Americas,” he mused to no one.
He was alone in his carriage of course, but the thought came aloud unbidden.
“Grain is down and tensions are high in the Americas,” He said to the empty seat across from him. He imagined himself seated there, retorting, “so what?”
“Low prices on food means surplus; means more spending money; means happier people. Happy people don’t start wars on a whim. So why the trouble at the border?” the Admiral explained, (still to no one).
“Best reports say armed Spanish farmers crossed the border first. The most likely culprit is racism,” his invisible double replied, “The oldest excuse. The Spaniards have always resented the resurgent Inca, and blamed them for Bolivar’s success. Seems simple enough to me.”
“Farmers?” the Admiral was frowned, “Racism maybe, but racism as a rallying cry for something more mundane. A farmer is the only man to resent a surplus of his crop. Lower prices means a thinner margin. Thinner margins makes a man resent his competition. Hatred born of sour grapes but justified by racism. All the more ridiculous given the Inca don’t grow the same staples as the Spanish for the most part.”
“And yet that Spanish Admiral,” the ghost mused.
“And yet the Spanish Admiral. This could get out of hand very quickly if cooler heads don’t prevail,” the Admiral tapped his cane on the floor of the carriage as this thought.
“Our operation in Panama will help, no doubt,” the empty seat said reassuringly.
“Forestalling the inevitable, I fear,” the Admiral frowned, “The peace in the Americas was never built to last. Stop gap after stop gap, but the Inca and Spanish are destined to fight the next great war over some damn stupid thing in Colombia.”
“Unless we fight it right here in Europe,” his alter ego said smiling.
The Admiral tapped his cane again. He looked out the window of his carriage at the passing streets of London.
No one was watching his carriage, nobody was paying anymore mind to him than to step out of his way.
All the same, he took out the small box in his coat pocket. He opened it, wound the crank, and set it on the seat beside him.
“We could just talk silently you know?” he reminded himself.
“I prefer it this way. If you don’t like it leave.”
The Admiral chuckled to himself.
“I haven’t heard from Victoria in too long. Quirke is doing fine I hear, but Victoria has remained silent since the Alps. Nothing on the wires about a captured or downed airship. But no reports, no updates, no news whatsoever,” the Admiral tilted his cane up, stabbing a few times at the roof of the cab, “Makes me…”
“Nervous?” he offered.
“Heaven’s no!” the Admiral denied quickly, “Angry more like. I’m accustomed to being in the loop on this sort of thing.”
“So what do you do?” the emptiness asked, “Trust Winthrop to do the job or start meddling?”
“Meddling has a certain appeal,” he nodded, “But with no eyes and ears meddling could give up the game. All the same, there’s that matter of the Fliege, Milan, and those chatter code cylinders. I cannot do nothing.”
“A more measured approach then?”
“What do we have in mind?” the Admiral asked.
“What we need is information. And to get it, I think we need to lay an ambush.”
The Admiral tapped the floor again, “Victoria has been silent for some time.”
“She’s likely changed the target, but won’t radio in the change to our people on the ground till the last minute.”
“If our enemies know that too, we can use that,” the Admiral nodded to himself, “We fabricate a transmission from Victoria, with details about her new target.”
“We send it through our normally secure chatter code, with a directive that the attack is imminent…”
“…And we see who blinks.”
The Admiral smiled to himself as the carriage came to a halt in front of an unassuming printing house office.
The carriage door opened and an automata opened the door for him, “Welcome back *click* Admiral *click*”
“Good to be back, R0b3rt. I trust the house hasn’t burned down whilst I was away,” the Admiral said, practically bounding towards the doors of the office.
The machine man made a clicking approximation of laughter, “You seem in *click* high spirits today, *click* Sir.”
“Terribly high, R0b3rt, terribly high. I feel I shall take on the world today.”
“So *click* like every day then, *click* Sir.”
They shared a hearty, and occasionally clicky, laugh.
Issac considered for a moment that he should feel the urge to smile right now. His plans were working perfectly, after all. The meetings had picked up at 11, and Gavrilović had immediately started in on his earnest plea for compromise: Istria and Dalmatia, for Tripoli and Tunisia.
“I’m afraid that’s entirely unacceptable!” Ricci exclaimed.
“I beg your pardon?” Gavrilović asked, taken aback.
“That’s almost twice the territory we ask for,” Ricci barked. Issac wasn’t sure that was true.
“Hardly,” Gavrilović waved a hand, “And besides, it is mostly desert. You, on the other hand, ask for rich green lands. You ask for quality, and we for quantity. It seems very reasonable to me.”
Ricci frowned, but sputtered and failed to come up with an adequate reason he must refuse. He had to refuse though. Italy had fought hard for its North African holdings. Perhaps not as brutal a campaign as the Turkish had fought for their territories during the Islah Savaşi, but conquest was conquest.
Ricci tried to talk around the issue, offering to talk trade whilst he came up with a reasonable excuse beyond “I don’t want to,” but then it was the Turkish turn to make accusations about avoiding certain topics.
Gavrilović looked to him at one point, silently asking what the hell Issac had gotten him into, and Issac made a small show of incredulity directed at the Italians.
“I’m as confused at this reaction as you are,” was the message he was trying to convey. He hoped it worked.
The shouting was quieted by another reminder from Issac that everyone was a friend here and if anyone wanted to shout they were welcome to try and be heard over the sound of 0sc4r’s whistle. The Turks reluctantly agreed to table the Africa swap for a time being and focus on trade, slightly bitter since this was the very thing they’d suggested this morning (not that they were complaining!).
Oddly enough, the trade discussion was at least somewhat productive. They very nearly talked right through lunch on establishing mutually low tariffs on Mediterranean trade. Issac took copious notes on who wanted what. He wasn’t sure it would be any use to him, but the Skymarshal or somebody back in Intelligence might find it all very fascinating, so he keeping jotting down lines in the simple cypher he’d chosen for the conference.
All the most pedestrian issues were making their way around the table. Things like shipping rights, tariffs, port fees; though none of these discussions ever reached concrete numbers, since the question on who would own which coastlines was still a bit in flux. A point they had very nearly returned to, courtesy of an Italian aide’s slip of the tongue, when Sig. Baroncelli stood and addressed the room.
“My goood Gentlemen and Ladies; let us adjourn for lunch on this high note, shall we?”
The release of tension was palpable as the territory issue was narrowly avoided yet again.
Issac closed his notebook and sighed.
“Not going as planned is it?” Col. Stein asked, gathering up her own small notebook.
Issac felt worn out. Just sitting and listening, with the occasional dissatisfactory grunt or veiled threat to unleash 0sc4r didn’t seem that hard, but somehow the very fact of pretending to be someone was almost a physical pressure he felt exerted upon him. The colonel, by contrast, was hideously alert. Her eyes moved fluidly around the room, watching everyone and no one. When those eyes fell on Issac, he was almost certain they could somehow see his falsehoods.
She was smiling that smile, the one which made Issac uneasy. A knowing smile, full of confidence and mischief.
Issac smiled back, as best he could, “Not entirely, but what ever does?”
Stein stood, and Issac followed her to his feet.
“In that regard, diplomacy and war are very much alike,” she said.
Issac chuckled, “Yes, I suppose so.”
He walked with Stein to the door, all the while she seemed to watch him.
“So where are you from, Herr Schulz?” she asked, perhaps innocently
“Heidelberg. Though I grew up in Worms,” Issac did his best to not sound like he was reciting the dossier he’d been given on himself.
“Heidelberg? A university man?” Stein asked.
“Guilty I fear,” Issac tried to sound jovial, like this was natural, but he couldn’t help but feel beads of sweat forming on his brow.
“How did you end up in the Foreign Ministry then?” Stein continued.
“We all feel the call of civic duty at some time I think, colonel, but not all of us have the fortitude for military life,” Issac said, totally honestly. The work in Military intelligence was challenging, and Issac loved that, but it was work that, while impressive, would never be known by his peers and colleagues. His Cambridge friends all thought we was doing work for the Exchequer.
“Why did you tell the Turks to ask for Tripoli?” the question came out like a slap in the face. Issac might have expected it, but they weren’t even back to the room yet. Anyone might be listening in this hallway.
Issac stumbled, then silently cursed himself. A stumble was a prelude to a lie, and Stein knew that. Her eyes were cold, and gave nothing away without intention, but she was making no secret that his next words had better be good.
I have to lie about what I was about to lie about, Issac thought quickly, but I need to make that lie the sort of thing I would lie about as Schultz. Issac was so frustrated with this role he was forced to play he could scream.
He let out an exasperated sigh, “Truthfully?”
Stein raised an eyebrow.
“There are two truths here. There are truthful, pragmatic, political reasons, and then there are real actual reasons,” Issac said. He used this little bit of rhetoric in his classrooms sometimes. The real reason, or the real reason. It drew people in.
“Both then,” Stein said smiling.
“Politically it makes sense. The Turks will accept it, the Italians will get what they want without emptying their coffers as Sig. Ricci feared. It is the clear compromise,” Issac said truthfully, “But truthfully,” he lied, “I needed a test.”
“A test?” Stein folded her arms.
“Of course it is too much of a shift in the discussion to be answered today. No doubt moments after Gavrilović suggested it to the table some Italian aide wired the demands to Rome. They’d have to discuss it there before Ricci could seriously respond. But that’s not the point,” Issac found the lies flowing naturally now. There was some truth after all, and he had thought he might paint a picture like this to defend his actions. He just hadn’t expected to be doing it here in the hallway.
“The point is,” Stein picked up the thread for him, “Ricci rejected it outright.”
“Exactly,” Issac tried his best hand at a mischievous smile.
Stein smiled, but this time it wasn’t sly or knowing, simply a smile, “Which tells you worlds about Ricci.”
She looked Issac up and down, as if seeing him for the first time.
“Would you like to accompany me for a walk?” she finally asked.
“I…I beg your pardon?” Issac stumbled again.
“There was a lovely bistro just past the square the last time I was in the city,” She gestured toward the door out of the palace.
“I…,” Issac felt stupid. Say something damn it! “I’m not sure it would be entirely proper.”
Stein laughed, threading her arm through his, “I think I shall survive the scandal.”