"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to....OMG!!!! Sorry, IM hell :( BRB"
-Governor Desmond Shang
(Roleplaying Disclaimer. I don't really know how to knit.)
THE BATTLE OF CALEDON
Some weekends simply do not go as anticipated. I remember idly thinking at Miss Rothschild's birthday affair that the tensions of the last few weeks had quite calmed down. Amidst the piles of mechanical toys and cheerful little mechanical men, who could possibly think of the tensions between those Teutonic fellows and our fair nation? Surely, there can be no misunderstandings under a clear blue sky when one is stuffing one's face with cake and the necessary ice cream.
In retrospect, perhaps we ought have invited the Jaeger over for tea that day, and perhaps even an invigorating bounce on the steam trampoline. But such wishes are merely water that has passed down stream. Like milk that is spilt after the barn doors are open, we cannot press our wishes into present day fish servitude. Or something like that. I never do get my aphorisms correct.
So, Saturday morning found me nursing a sugar headache with a call on the Marconi from Mr. Sputnik. Some such about how his gravity switches were all awry. I had visions of him floating aimlessly about the Etheric Travel Cabinet. A pleasant enough party game perhaps, but hardly the sort of thing that contributes to getting actual work done about the place.
Not wishing to abandon my favorite Timelord (by which I mean perfectly ordinary inventor type fellow and certainly not a time hopping alien from Gallifrey), I took the Aether transport up to the hangar and stoked the orni. Lord, I am glad for the draughty halls of Steam City that inspired me to eschew modest attire and throw my flight uniform on.
So, soon I found myself shouldering over-large jugs of quicksilver down at the ETC, wondering just where Professor Avalanche had got himself to these past few days. As befitting his modern tastes, the good Time...person had a cylinder of lovely jazz music on and despite the abysmal excuse for tea that he makes, I found the headache disappearing. And then it was back to the aforementioned shouldering. Well, nothing like breaking out in a glow to make a girl feel right as rain, I must say.
Just then, one of the numerous lights in the Cabinet started flashing, which is hardly unusual save that it wasn't the fault of my accidentally dusting a lever or some other such occurrence. Seeing this as an opportunity to lower my load, I looked up to see Mr. S looking positively worried as he clamped the Marconi's earpiece to head.
"The d--- you say!" he shouted into the receiver whilst hurriedly flipping things that no doubt warranted flipping.
I took the time to adjust my scarf in a focusing mirror. Real silk, you know. Imported from the orient and everything. Good for polishing one's glasses, and looking sharp. Comes with every set of Aviation Flying Gear, available at your local La Bicyclette outlet. But I digress.
"Virginia!" he said, failing to roll the extra R. "It's Colonel Pearse."
I remembered the Colonel's mysterious words from Friday morning. "Miss Tombola, do keep your Vickers limbered up as we expect the Neualtenbergers to attack Caledon at 1304 Local, at an altitude of 547 metres on a heading of 287 to 293 magnetic." At the time, such words had seemed but a vague warning.
"Oh, do tell him Miss MacAllister would want him to wear his woolies, sir," I said helpfully. Quite frankly, the lack of knitted garment wearing by the Caledonian men was getting under my skin. It was not for nothing that I nearly impaled myself learning to knit for the war effort! But the modern fellow seems overly concerned about having the proper number of arm holes in his vest and other absurd niceties. I ask you, did Nelson say "Caledon expects that each man will do his duty, unless he should have a badly knitted set of knickers?" Of course not. For one, he wasn't Caledonian.
Such thoughts occupied me long enough to ensure that Mr. S got his own blessed equipment together. I had to blink at the Cinematicatron thingee (or whatever it's called).
"Sir," I said, discretely pouring the remnants of the alleged tea into a nearby potted plant, "whatever is that for, and where ever is it going?"
He winked in that charming way he has (may we thank the Lord for the existence of Miss Ladybird!). "Need to head up into the skies and do a bit of scouting. Shouldn't be a moment." I was about to query him in regard to what he meant by "scouting", but he was trotting quickly away. I've seldom seen him so tense.
Following him up the spiral staircase (where did that come from?) to the roof, I found him stuffing his photographic equipment into the rear seat.
"Think you can hold it steady enough?"
I pulled the weight and balance slide rule out from under the instrument panel. "Under 15 stone, sir?"
He looked embarrassed. "Virginia, you know my fondness for Tedaskian Pudding."
"I meant the apparatus, sir." Fudging things as best as I could, I dismantled the rear cross braces. For some odd reason, I have fond the poor little ornithopter cannot get airborne with more than 310 stone worth on board. Toss a butterfly on top, and it sighs gracelessly and goes nowhere. Professor Avalanche has explained to me that it is a physical property, which seems a bit of a tautology to me. Nevertheless, I shan't dispute the brilliant--and there was no disputing that we were fair onto maximum gross weight. Mr Sputnik isn't the only one who could profit from one less pud or two in the gullet.
"Cap or helmet, sir?" I asked. I must admit, the flying helmet gets a bit of an odour after a long flight.
He met my eyes. "Helmet. Definitely helmet." I so wanted to tell him that we ought finish up the quicksilver sorting, and maybe take time for a dip in the pool room. But I knew seriousness of purpose when I saw it.
Soon, the wings of the ornithopter were flapping and we were airborne. Lord, how I love flight. Somehow, even with the noisy Wind-Whittlesea dynamo chugging and the wind rushing by one's ears, it all seems so peaceful. Being a tad bracing at altitude, I took her down low and was rewarded with the moist wet air below the cloud tops. Dodging the occasional offended gull, the green shores of Caledon soon came into view, still partially obscured with the morning sea mist.
Glancing quickly over my shoulder, Mr. S seemed to have set himself up a veritable airborne camera studio. He was panning the cinematron around, seeming to focus on the clouds for some unknown reason. I so wanted to ask him what he was about, but there is only so much communication possible in an aircraft. I have to admit, dirigibles can be far quieter and peaceful. But none are so fast. And none can bring an Aircannon to bear quite so quickly, as I would soon have cause to be grateful for.
"Primverness!" he shouted, pointing excitedly to the North East. Dear reader, I do not wish to give the impression that Mr. S is an easily excitable or frivolous man. Far, far from it. So when I saw him so agitated, my heart leapt in my chest as only leaping hearts can. Steeling myself, I opened the main steam valve and pulled back, taking us far up into the skies above the wide spaces of Primverness.
I needed to speak, so I secured the wing lifters for a moment and slowed to reduce the wind roar.
"What does the Colonel want from us, sir?" cried I.
"Haven't the slightest, really," he said, fiddling with the lens. "We're here to observe, and try not to get too perforated up in the process."
Future chroniclers might add splendid words amongst us at this point, and perhaps imbue us with a certain foreknowledge of the attack. Oh, well, foreknowledge we had, I suppose. But perhaps last night's cake was still addling my brain. All I could think of was the perforation business. I'm not proud. I was terrified.
Mr. S handed me a stoppered flask of tea. I was too shaken to complain about it for a change, though in retrospect, I am certain he used the "ether-wave" to make it. As I sipped nervously, he tapped my shoulder.
"Take her down, lass. I think I see something."
Those were the last words I would be able to hear for a while. I'd shot the Vickers before, and the arming procedures were automatic. But when I tested it, it seemed to roar as it had never spoken before. Then, it was a pull on the primary valve, lifters back on, wings stroking back and the nose pointed forward towards a hill swarming with bright red figures. Neualtenbergers.
I know full well the orni smoke is visible enough at full bore, so an overbank and an almost late pull up later, I ran her down the rills that proliferate about Primverness. Popping through a cleft in the hills, I eased down to treetop level and then some, the Wind Whittlesea roaring with an angry hiss. Someday, I will learn to avoid branches, but that wasn't the day as I had to duck behind the windscreen to avoid wayward flora.
A thump from Mr S on my right shoulder brought me up, just as I heard the gentle popping of rounds going off. I saw a blurred image of a Hussar then slapped the stick over and right, following Mr. S's suggestion. Or at least I thought that was what he meant me to do.
Regardless, we escaped that one well enough, though I rued my timidity in not spending a single cartridge. I stared at Mr. S, who was calmly changing reels. With as casual a thumb as you might imagine, he pointed back towards the hills. By now it was a full army. Victoria city was under attack.
We knew where we, or at least he was needed. Arcing down in an English bunt that nearly pulled the tea flask from my grasp, we risked one more pass over the remaining Jerries. This time, I forced myself to squeeze the triggers and was rewarded with more noise and smoke in the cockpit. I doubt very much (and frankly hope) it did no harm, but it seemed to keep them down long enough for Mr. S to do the necessary with his camera.
Victoria City hove into view, her topless towers ringed with dark smoke. I indulged in a few loops down the main street, as I've oft done for fun--but here I hoped to stave off that "perforation" Mr. S spoke of. For the first time, the awful reality of it all set in. There would be no dress shopping in the main square for weeks, that much was certain. Rolling out over the governors mansion, I felt actually angry, and held the Vickers open for a long moment, until the rounds jammed from heat. But there was little time for emotionalism. We would be needed, we knew. As every man and woman would be.
We put down on a roof top and clambered out, he with his revolver, and I with my absurd little derringer. I know well enough how little good that thing does outside of three paces. It might annoy a small cat, but below we could see mounted Neufy hussars charging. They weren't riding cats.
Whilst my mind was still adjusting, Mr. S was a blur of motion. With he camera under one arm he was diving across the roof, just as a small troop came about the corner. I have no idea what happened next. I heard the Vickers go off, and all was confusion. When it settled, well, there were no more horse troop to be seen. The may have run; they may have been cut down. I had neither time nor inclination to investigate. Mr. S credits me with such offensive antics, but I truthfully will say that I was lengths away from the ornithopter by then. Perhaps the guns cooked off or some such--I am no munitions expert. Perhaps the orni was discovering clank-like properties. I wish I could ask it.
What can I say about the land war that hasn't been said better by my betters? Everything seems almost grey in my memory, so I cannot be held as a reliable witness. Arriving late at the party, as it were, I heard snatches of rumours-- how Miss Garmes took a bullet for the governor, how the appearance of the Fabled Drop Bear put the Jaegar to flight, how an airship had made its appearance overhead, just as we were (perhaps fortunately) putting down.
This last would prove dramatically significant to us. Colonel Pearse pulled me aside, his usual jauntiness none the worse for the wear, despite powder burns and a clockwork arm replacement.
"We've spotted the troopship, Miss Tombola. How many ornithopters can you field?"
I am ashamed to say, I had neglected the duties of my honourary captaincy in the Air Corps. A true, plucky soldier would have popped to attention, saluted and cried out, "The Aircorps stands ready with a flight of twelve well-maintained fighter craft, sah!" But I'd spent more time fussing in the shop than practising close order formation with a theoretically flying squadron.
I stammered and looked at my feet. "Well, sir. There is myself. And Mr. Sputnik wishes to film from the backseat." I looked around at the disordered garden in the palace. Caledon deserved better.
"And I've one of your crates, if you remember," he said in his comforting drawl. I almost said something about his arm, but thought better of it. "Major Smashcan has one as well, does he not?"
I looked where the Colonel was staring. The aforementioned Major was reclining gracefully on the grass, his jacket darkly stained.
"Wakey wakey!" Colonel Pearse cried, and I will swear on a pound of Belgian chocolate that the Major leapt to his feet right there, as easily as my puppy does when she senses I might possibly be entertaining the possibility of tossing the ball about with her.
"Hullo, Miss T," said the Major, grinning in that way that only six foot or better Scandanavians with ice blue eyes and impressive shoulders can. "What should I wear?"
"I find it cold up there, sir," I said, buttoning my jacket up.
"Hmm? A tee-shirt, then, at least," he said, rather unfathomably.
"Right, then," said the Colonel, brandishing his riding crop. "We'll make do. Here's what. Large flying battleship, about to drop a few tonnes of bombs on the city. It's up there, ah, somewhere." He flourished the crop heavenward. "We'll just pop up there and let them know we won't stand for that sort of thing around here. Not cricket, though it might pass in Australian rules football. Hardly the point, of course."
I am often confused, so I can easily recognize the condition when I feel it upon me. "Sir, I'm terribly sorry, what is the plan of attack?"
Colonel Pearse stroked his muttonchops. "Plan?"
"Wouldn't survive contact with the enemy," he said with a shrug.
Mr. Sputnik clapped me on the shoulder, causing me to stagger. "It's just like shooting wombats in Beggar's canyon back home, lass."
As is frequently the case, I wondered what he was on about.
So there you have it. No doubt we looked very fine as we rose up into the sky trailing Colonel Pearse in fingertip formation. I truly think there are few prettier things than a lacquered wing shining in the sunlight, and there we were, busily flapping away two wings apiece.
But despite all that, I will confess that I didn't feel particularly ooja-cum-spiff. My belly was grumbling that I really ought have gone for that second crumpet that morn, or at least have been a tad more liberal with the jam knife. I really felt in strong need of a tub by now, and was wondering what act of vanity had caused me to pass over my athletic stays today. I usually know better--but the flight jacket is a tad form fitting, and I had known I might be seen in public. Vanity, thy name is dunderheaded bicycle maker.
I was wondering if Mr. Sputnik would notice if I slit my lacings when we broke through the overcast. There, framed against the golden clouds, was the Brynhilde.
"That's no moon," said Mr. Sputnik loudly, and a bit pointlessly, as it was clearly not moon-ish at all. More, battleship-ish, much akin to the Persephone.
A chill went down my spine as I followed the Colonel's lead and armed the aircannon. There could not be TWO Peresephone's. I flashed back to Mr. Heinrich's tour of her decks.
"BWAH HA HA!!!" he had commented. "With this, I shall rule the WORLD! Or at least the beachfront areas with high property values." I had nodded politely at the time, overawed by his craftmanship and oblivious to the undercurrents of duplicity that were now making sense to me. He was a traitor, who had traitorously turned coat with his creation. Why, never again would I trust a badger. I didn't care how catchy their theme song was.
There was no time for reflection, however. I had hoped that we might be able to sneak up on the ship and do whatever it was that needed doing. But ornis at full bore were hardly quiet, and our initial pass was interrupted when Major Smashcan's beastie had a momentary engine failure. We regrouped and plunged in, but not before the main guns started booming.
One might wonder at the sense of sending an ornithopter to do an airship's job, but the Caledonian airships are a peaceable lot. For all the potential they have to carry cannon, their great silk bags make for easy targets. As it was, we had our hands full keeping the ornis moving. When in doubt, fly upside down, is my motto. You might not know what you are doing, but it's also doubtful if they do.
Passing through the billowing yellow black flack clouds, our modus operandus became clear. Well, at least not particularly murky. There was no chance on the great iron sides, but above the guns, we were as safe as babes in a Steinbeck Patent Safety Crib. We could pick and choose where to target. I began to wonder if there was any tea left in the flask.
That was when the sharpshooters arrived on deck, spoiling our fun tremendously. Splitting off in all directions, I found myself careening wildly towards the silhouette of the Jaeger himself as he took aim at Major Smashcan as the latter executed a neat pirouette over the fantail. Without thinking, I squeezed the Vicker's triggers hard, screaming like the madwoman I no doubt was at this point. The Jaeger did me the favour of diving to the deck as I rolled triumphantly overhead.
As I turned to smirk at Mr. Sputnik, another blast rocked the ornithopter. My vision clearing, I looked up in horror to see myself headed for the side of Colonel Pearse's craft. With all my strength, I buried the stick in my lap and we leapt upwards, momentarily brushing him, but with no apparent ill effects.
"I thought I'd get some altitude," I yelled at Mr. S, who, with his characteristic unflappability, nodded and reloaded a film canister. Having a second or two to reflect, I realized how valuable the intelligence on that film was. But it wouldn't do us much good if Victoria City was bombed. I pointed the nose straight down at the ship and opened up.
I suppose there is nothing like a target head straight at one to motivate marksmanship. Distantly, I heard a pop, then followed by a loud crack. Light brown oil from the hydraulic lifters sprayed over the cockpit, erupting into smoke as it touched the boiler section. The ornithopter spun out of control like a debutante with four glasses of wine in her.
I reached for the emergency hydraulic pumps, then I remembered.
"Not bad work, Miss Tombola," Mrs. Wind had said, looking over the craft. "Don't forget to install back up systems, though."
"But Mrs. Wind, I wanted to put it on the Exchange today. Look! I've already taken the publicity photographs."
"Well, if you have a press kit, I'm sure you'll be fine," she said sagely. "Just don't fly it yourself, mmmm?"
I flashed back to the present where my control stick was flailing about the cockpit like a broom-handle seeking wayward rats.
The film! Mr. S needed to escape. "Jump sir!" I yelled, trying to push him out of the cockpit with little success. He started to clamber forward to assist me. That dratted chivalric can be such a bother at times.
I was wondering what the odds of my flight boots achieving the necessary cameraman-dislodging force when the wing settled the issue by folding like a visitor to a Polymath card game.
I watched him disappear in the smoke, then I heard the sound of collapsing wood. I have ironed enough blouses in my time to know the smell of burning fabric intimately. But I was too spent to care.
I must say, for a crowd of Baby Bothering Bosch, they were a nice lot. The Jaeger himself dropped by and offered my this substance they *call* beer, but as far as I can tell, is more of a general anesthetic. Tastes well enough. I imagine that sooner or later there would have been a prisoner exchange of sorts. But to be honest, I had a few orders I needed to get to work on back at the shop. And the Neufys had been good enough not to notice my parachute.
What can I say? I might be hopeless at many things, but when it comes to falling accidentally off high platforms, I acknowledge no peer. Next time, I'll try to miss the duck pond.