A Sense of Commitment
It was the first time I witnessed the Maenad fly.
Into the velvet darkness we climbed, slow and silent in that phase termed 'flying dark'. Yet we held steady. Balthier had an inestimable skill in such extreme circumstance, in his ability to blanket out distraction, focused on balancing the ship's off-kilter weight on two slow-spinning rings. He succeeded, not effortlessly, but as though the metal was an extension of his viscera.
Only Fran's voice penetrated that intensity.
From the rank of chairs behind their two, I leaned forward. 'Our course?'
Fran gave a bearing unexpected, almost in the opposite direction to that which we should tend.
Wary, I remembered Balthier's speech to the crew below, of his intentions to get out of the warzone as fast as he could. Fran's bearing would take us almost to the region of jagd nearest to Balfonheim. No airship could fly through jagd, not even the Maenad—Mist-laden winds and magicite-rich soil precluded the operation of skystone. Did the skypirates intend for us to coast the edge of that turbulent cloud, where no other airship would go, and disappear somewhere over the steppes?
'That's not what Margrace told the Rozarrian patrols, Fran.'
'Yet if we bear directly for the Archadian circuit, and a savvy navigator should plot our origin, what would it be?'
'Deflection,' Fran said, as close to satisfied as I'd ever heard her. 'The ability to deflect a direct blow may well win the battle.'
'We're to hide in jagd?'
'The edges of the cloud. We will come around Balfonheim along the jagd, then shift our course to a nearby purvama. We will merge with the Archadian patrols unseen.'
'Balthier can do it? Skirt jagd without falling?'
'At full speed, yes. We will accelerate once beyond Balfonheim's air and the close Archadian watch.'
Eyeing his profile, lines and sharpness fixed on the horizon, I felt a grudging respect. This pair knew their business, knew what risks could deliver a worthwhile gain.
'Nono,' Fran tapped through on the comm. 'Our course is set. Be ready to power up in five.'
Balthier breathed out, heavily, a sound of relief.
Having already drilled the gunnery crew at loading and unloading our artillery, it plagued me that we had never chanced to fire. While we flew through desolate skies, it seemed as good a time as any to drill our crew.
Four hours past dawn, I disappeared belowdecks, woke the snoring lizard contingent and one raucously snoring Hume, and drilled their response to instruction. Innovation on their part was not exactly desirable.
The near-blindness of Bangaa did not concern me, nor their ability to target. Bearings would be called from the cockpit; so long as the Bangaa could adjust the guns, they would do. Should our bluff hold firm, we would fire at close range—not precisely threading a falling feather through a needle's eye.
When I returned to the cockpit, Balthier slouched, moulded to the pilot's chair. Jagd was invisible to the naked eye, the sky before us deceptively calm. Only Fran's console displayed the thick, shifting edge of the Mist-storm as a white noise. Tendrils reached and fell flat as the wind shifted.
Fran gave curt instruction in response to the motion. 'Two points port.'
Such an incremental distance, it surprised me the Maenad was sensitive enough to register it.
'Two points,' Balthier answered.
Into this tension, I announced, 'I'd like the crew to try a trial exercise.'
Balthier barely blinked. 'No. I'd have to bring us away from this jagd. Not now.'
'Come on,' I said, exasperated, 'We have to fire the guns before we engage our first battle, especially the missile launcher. We don't even know if they'll fire, or if the engineers did well enough reinforcing the hull against the recoil. If we are to fall apart, better to do it in relative privacy.'
Balthier muttered something dire at the deceptive sky. 'How do you know that there's not half a fleet of Archadian Remoras using the jagd as we are, to hide their lurking? Where do you think I learned to fly like this? It's a bloody Archadian tactic!'
I bit back the annoyance. 'How likely is it that a superior-powered fleet would need to bother with a deceptive—and dangerous—strategy?'
I could understand his tension, to an extent. We were underway, in a potentially fatal field. I covered my anxiety with the micro-tensions of drilling an unhappy crew. Balthier had no such recourse, only the endless horizon and Fran's quiet direction.
'If not now,' I said, 'then when? You know we need live exercise.'
A long, long pause. 'I really hate artillery, you know.'
I remembered him then as first seen on this ship, flashing his impotence at the Archadian attack.
Fran looked at Balthier's steel-tense forearm, veins starkly obvious, then his profile. 'She's right, it is necessary.'
A long, shuddering breath. 'All right. Get them ready, Feathers. I'll pull away from the jagd, you relay on my command. Only on my command, you hear?'
Adrenaline rising, I reached for the comm.
Prematurely, as it turned out.
Seven times Balthier gave his go, only to belay the order before I could relay it to the crew below.
Fran disappeared briefly and returned with a thermos of aged coffee, which hardly helped any of our nerves.
The eighth time, I left the comm. where it was and waited. I slurped from my beaker, eyes fixed on the back of Balthier's head.
'All right, what? I gave the go ten seconds ago!'
'By your previous record, that's enough time to change your mind more than once. What's wrong?'
Balthier swivelled his chair about. He sulked at his knuckles, eyes anywhere but meeting my gaze. 'The feeling, that's what's wrong.'
I pondered his feelings in detail. War-wary of the sound, the feel of a missile firing; frustrated at the necessity of weapons; uncertain of his commitment to Margrace's role for him. I wanted, needed demonstration of his obedience to necessity. Fran might trust him, but I did not.
'Is this more than grating your ill-oiled morals?'
'Well, then,' I said, smiling.
Balthier rolled his shoulders, exasperated. 'Go on, then, do it. Fire. It's not like the Maenad's my airship.'
'No.' Fran's lips barely twitched. 'It's Margrace's.'
Aghast, Balthier stared at her. He shuddered.
'Spare your worries,' I said, hearty. 'This way, if the calculations are wrong, at least it's not your fault or your problem.'
For the eighth time that day, I picked up the comm. 'Gun crew at the ready.'
There came the heartening sound of instant response: running feet from below and above. Ba'gamnan's snarled confirmation rose from the hold's depths, where he commanded the numbers. Gijuk signalled the same from the missile launcher disguised on the gun deck, directly above the cockpit.
'Opening live exercise. Target to starboard, Archadian Atomos. Range two kilometers and closing. Bearing zero two five relative and moving astern—'
Two voices confirmed the bearing locked.
This is how events would pan: the Maenad would lurk in concealment, awaiting the approach of an airship. The airship would be locked into our targets before they could be aware of our presence. We would lower the screens that made the Maenad's hull appear whole, the floor-mounted assault guns primed. The concealment case around the missile launcher above would drop. We would fire, with intent to disable our opponent in the first few rounds. The last was essential, or our fundamentally defenceless Maenad would be reduced to shrapnel in the return fire.
Fortunately, this was only a drill.
I projected an air of tolerance, waiting for Balthier's command to fire.
He ground his teeth. 'I hope this is more than enough exercise for you, Feathers. I wouldn't have said you'd needed it, with your figure, but—'
I raised the comm. and gave order to drop the screens.
'No, wait,' Fran breathed. 'Hold! I see—what is that?'
I clenched my fist. 'Gun crew, belay that order and hold ready, if you please.'
'Och, come on!' Bagamnan growled. 'When are ye lot gonna give over? Me sibs are missing their midmorning nap for this?'
By then, I saw it too—a glint to the fore, approaching fast, right along the edge of the jagd where I had been certain no one but a madman like Balthier would fly.
A transformation took place. Businesslike, traces of sulk removed, Balthier wasted no breath on gloating. 'We're flying an Archadian flag?'
'Of course,' I said.
'What? We can bluff, as we planned—'
'Out here, where no Archadian supply ship has any right to be?' Balthier shook his head, his eyes narrowed. 'Look how fast it's coming in, Feathers. It thinks we're an easy target.'
Fran said, efficient, 'It's a Mercuriot Fighter Class.'
'No, it's got to be a Remora, or a Valfarre, Archadians don't fly the Mercur—' I stared out of the cockpit, dazed, but even I could identify the airship's silhouette now. 'It's Rozarrian.'
'While us sitting stoned pigeons look the enemy.' Balthier had nerve, to sound so easy. 'Didn't Margrace alert the patrol that we'd be leaving?'
'What would it matter if he had? You two didn't tell the operations crew you were going to be scudding along the jagd rim, did you? They would have relayed our bearings elsewhere.'
'The Mercuriot shows sign of bringing its armaments to bear,' Fran said. 'We should fire first. Our guns remain at the ready.'
'Fire on our kind?' I snapped.
Fran faced Balthier. 'We have no allies in this field.'
Balthier alternated his gaze between Fran's display and the visual through the cockpit window. The Mercuriot's rings settled into a hold. The airship hung at rest, not rushed, each weapon atop that gun deck locking in on the defenceless-seeming Archadian supply ship.
Was I the true coward, to break that tension first? Or was it that I offered the worst way out?
'Call them, Balthier. Tell them who we are.'
'This is a secret mission,' Balthier said. 'Not my choice, but that's how Margrace wanted to play it. If there is an Archadian airship out there, watching this encounter, even just listening to the comm. if we call through, what happens to our cover then?'
'I never thought you cared,' I said, bitterly.
Over the military veneer, the profiteer reared his head and grinned, bright and bold. 'No chance of coming out of this on top if we lose our bluff now, is there?'
'Lay the guns,' Fran said.
Reluctant, I lifted the comm.
'Gun crew. Belay previous range. This is not an exercise. Target is Rozarrian Mercuriot Fighter Class, range one point five kilometers and holding, bearing,' I glanced at Fran's display, 'zero seven three relative and holding—'
A blast rocked the Maenad. Our pitiful paling flared white with the recoil. When the brilliance cleared, I saw Balthier's hand snaking back into his own space, leaving the whiteness of his fingerprints fading on Fran's dark arm.
When the recoil cleared, we stared at the spiralling deconstruction of an airship, particles flying off in red-glowing arcs, the rising smoke, the slow descent. The Mercuriot fell, helpless.
'Gijuk! I hadn't given the command, you bloody liz—!'
'It wasn't Gijuk,' Fran interrupted. 'Nor Ba'gamnan in the hold.'
'Because the screens are still up,' Balthier added. 'We didn't hear them descend, did we?'
They broke their gaze to peer at me, suspicious.
For an endless moment, the Mercuriot's wreckage looked to hold no survivors. Only a Fighter Class, no jettison pod detached itself—only a lone parachute, which popped into the sky almost too late for salvation.
Balthier stared at the drifting silk and shook his head.
I leaned forward. 'If it wasn't us—'
'There's another airship out there,' Fran agreed.
'They've got to be Archadian,' Baltheir said.
'Keep the guns ready,' I snapped into the comm.
Ba'gamnan nearly howled. 'They've been ready for the last hour—'
'Guns ready, screens up, the Rozarrian ship is down!'
My snarl shocked Ba'gamnan into a sadly brief silence. 'Oi! Not by our call.'
'Exactly why you're keeping the guns at the ready.'
Via the comm., Ba'gamnan laughed, tinny and starched.
Ten minutes we waited, knowing ourselves under observation.
In that ten minutes, Nono adjusted the engine for full operation. If fate decreed we go down, at least we could get there fast. The gun crew sweated it out, skin and scales, in that suddenly claustrophobic hold with one lonely port window showing them nothing. Balthier cracked his knuckles and rubbed his mouth, and burned energy with twitching. Fran held still as sculpture, but for creaking her leathers as she breathed, slow and deep.
Eventually, Balthier spoke. 'We can't stay here. Total silence in the presence of a supposed ally is likely more suspicious than skirting jagd.'
'Maybe they just went away?' I suggested. 'We're flying Archadian, they could have thought us running supplies.'
'Running them from and to where, at this bearing?' Balthier said, irritated.
'Well, why was a Rozarrian airship in at here?'
'They're out there,' Balthier said. 'The same instinct that told me we weren't alone to begin with.'
The gall to quote instinct at me, as though I had reason to trust in untried instincts without proof.
He grinned at my expression. 'Aggravating your ulcer aside, Feathers, we do have a contract to keep and profits to reap, and we're not doing either while holding.'
The inky brushstroke of smoke yet marked the Rozarrian airship's downward trend. Nothing else glimmered in that dangerously serene sky.
The Maenad moved ahead. Fran eased into her chair, Balthier's fidgets focused into the console. We coasted, slow and steady, this time avoiding the jagd cloud and any suggestion that we might be doing anything even remotely untrustworthy.
In that slow, steady silence, Fran drew a white scarf from below her console, and bound her ears to her skull. I bit my tongue to bide the urge to ask, but then the answer came to me regardless. Fran could not risk a sighting. Women were rare enough in the Archadian military, and Viera not allowed, even aboard a scavenged cargo ship crewed by northern region provincials.
Fran's fingers were deft at tucking the scarf into place. 'There they are, coming to port.'
'Archadian,' Balthier noted. 'And alone.'
His tone came out odd, almost anticipatory, eager. Fran, too, picked up that strident vibe, and turned to regard him.
'Listen, Balthier, you're not thinking of—'
'The Archadian is too fast,' Fran said, steady. 'Her guns yet primed from last volley. We haven't a chance, if we menace now. They will broadcast our identity, and our opportunity here would be void.'
'—firing on it, are you?'
The hesitation before Balthier responded told us truer than words. 'Of course not.'
The Archadian ship hailed us with good cheer, comm. crackling. 'Ho, the antiquity! Are you hit?'
We three stared at the comm., uncertain.
'What are we again?' Balthier asked. 'Midland provinces, this ship's make?'
'Just testing you.'
He took the comm. Adjusting the set of his jaw, his shape of his lips as he formed the words, Balthier drawled an easy northern slang.
'Got a mite hairy there, captain, but we're grand so now.'
A crackle, then a loud laugh. 'Is that good or bad?'
'Truly, m'lad! What century is that airship from? The lads here and oneself have somewhat of a pool on the date!'
Balthier drew the comm. away from his mouth. 'Oh, the bastard.'
Unable to help the grin, the sheer tired relief, I let my head fall against the back of Balthier's chair and laughed.
The Archadian Cruiser Class Kragen altered its position, coasting first alongside us, then to the fore. Her captain flaunted her, ensuring that our hold crew won a good long look at the airship's sleek fa�ade. The Kragen then took a position that would have made her vulnerable to any guns on the Maenad's gun deck—had we not been so obviously unarmed, with Gijuk and the missile launcher yet under camouflage.
Balthier continued his exchange with the Kragen's good-humoured captain. The jocularity forced a certain softening of Balthier's smile, but moment by moment, I could pick how brittle Balthier grew. It was another relief when the Kragen's captain signed off:
'Glad to have been of service, Maenad. Placid skies to yourselves—and best of luck holding that thing together!'
With a thunderclap of disrupted air, the Kragen disappeared into the skies to our aft.
After a long moment, Balthier said, 'Thank the gods for idiot upper class sons. And I sincerely hope that that's enough exercise for you, Feathers. My heart rate's certainly elevated.'
'Exercise,' I said, disgusted. 'Who has time for exercises when surrounded by emergencies?'
'Keeps life interesting,' Balthier said, laconic. 'And rather keeps one at one's best, even if it is on one's toesies, I do say.'
We had yet to test-fire the guns.
Continue to Chapter 7 →
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