Authors: Daniel Ottalini
“Waste of time if you ask me,” the other boy volunteered.
Alexandros thought for a moment about how to reply. He barely knew Oclai Tuderis, but had heard his name mentioned by several of the mekanics and engineering professors at the academia.
“I think it is always a good thing to practice. One cannot be too prepared.”
Tuderis gave him a look.
“You say that now, but wait till it is happening at four in the morning.” Alexandros had to consider the validity of his point. He opened his mouth to respond as they turned the corner to the engine room. Tuderis forestalled him.
“You smell that?”
Alexandros took a sniff.
. His eyes widened in alarm.
“Fire! We’ve got to help them!”
The two teenagers rushed forward. Tuderis got there first, grabbing the door handle and yanking it open. A backdraft of heat and fire exploded out into the hallway. Alexandros felt himself tossed around and slammed into a metal bulkhead.
“Come on, damnit. Gods curse it, wake up!”
Someone was shaking his shoulders, and Alexandros could feel pain radiating out from the motion. He managed to lift his other arm and push the offending interrupter away. A pair of hands hauled him to his feet. His ears rang, and the disorientation was overpowering. An alarm began to wail in the background.
“We’ve got to move away from the fire. The emergency response teams are trying to smother it now,” the voice said.
His unseen helper dragged him a few more steps. Finally, Alexandros mustered the strength to open his eyes. His vision was blurry, but slowly sharpened as details came into focus. He turned to look at his rescuer.
Cadet Militanus was there, his dark face streaked with sweat. He manhandled Alexandros through the passageway and past the last bulkhead. The air was cleaner there, and Alexandros gulped great breaths of sweet oxygen into his lungs. The pounding of feet announced the arrival of the emergency response team. The crewmen were outfitted in heavy overcoats with thick gloves designed to protect against the fire. They wore heavily tinted goggles over their faces and flat helmets on their heads.
But how will they put out the fire with such a small supply of water?
The ship’s water bunkers were only designed for short flights and needed to be constantly replenished. Milantus gently lowered Alexandros down into an alcove. He stood up and winched open the window slightly to allow cooler air to seep into the passage.
“Here,” he said, handing the dazed cadet a canteen. Alexandros drank deeply, then remembered—
“Where is Oclai? He was right ahead of me!” he croaked.
Milantis shook his head. “Don’t worry, I got him before I grabbed you. I had to crawl to get to him.” He showed Alexandros his blistered palms, which had turned an angry red. “One of the instructors grabbed him and took him to sick bay. So, I was able to come back for you.”
Alexandros took another long drink from the canteen. He could feel his strength returning as the cool water washed the smoke and charcoal taste out of his throat.
“I’m going to go help them,” he stated, mustering his energy for the difficult task of standing. He reached up and grasped a convenient door handle. Leveraging his weight, he managed to pull himself upwards. The act made his eyes water and his lungs wheeze in protest.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Milantis scolded him. “Stay here, I just rescued you, I’m not going in again.”
Alexandros nodded, then stumbled back down the hallway. The smoke was dissipating somewhat as the crew inside the engine room got the fire under control. Small portholes had been opened in every room to help air out the vessel.
A group of the firefighters was gathered outside the room. Two rushed by with someone unrecognizable on a stretcher. One of the masked men turned to face him.
“Stay back, cadet. We’re done here, but the room is still hot. It’s nearly impossible to breathe in there.”
Alexandros hacked and coughed for a few moments before managing to inquire, “What happened?”
Another responder pulled off his helmet and brushed his sweaty hair from his eyes. “Looks like the intake flue wasn’t properly closed, and someone may have hit a wrong switch. We won’t be able to tell until the room has cooled off and the smoke has cleared. Until then, we are dead in the sky.”
Alexandros was impressed by this man’s knowledge of the situation.
Must be one of our instructors
. The man was looking curiously at Alexandros.
“Are you all right, cadet? You look a tad bit singed.”
Alexandros nodded, but nodding only led to a feeling of dizziness. Before he knew it, both men had grabbed ahold of him and lowered him gently to the floor.
“Too much smoke in the lungs, we’ll have to take him to the ship’s doctor,” one of the men was saying.
“Hang in there, cadet. Everything will be fine.”
Blackness swept over him again.
He awoke in the harsh rays of daylight. A small lantern swung fitfully above his bed, squeaking slightly. He rose slowly, feeling much better. The ship’s doctor came over to check him. A quick once over, a listen to his breathing, and he was pronounced fit for duty. Ordered to report to the bridge, Alexandros stopped by his bunk to change his clothes. His nose wrinkled, as he smelled his collar.
This thing will need to be washed.
He threw water on his face and wiped it down with his towel, trying to get the worst of the grime off. After doing this twice, he switched shirts and pulled on a different pair of pants before shoving his feet hastily into his boots and clomping out of the room.
The hallways were quiet. No doubt most of the men were resting after the drill, Alexandros assumed. He reached the bow staircase and climbed the brief spiral to the top deck until he was right outside the bridge. Above him, he could hear the boots of men on the outside deck above. He rapped on the door, then turned the wheel mechanism slowly.
He thought it funny that, while many civilians assumed that they directed these airships from the rear—as in the olden days of wooden sailing vessels—the opposite was actually true. The command deck was located in the foremost part of the ship, with wide windows providing a beautiful panoramic view of the sky around the vessel.
The room itself contained the ship’s wheel, a large wood and brass bound construct that hung sturdily between two pairs of supports that rose from the floor. A cadet stood at the wheel, his back facing Alexandros as he entered. To the side, another cadet sat in the captain’s chair, head bowed in consultation with one of the instructors. Alexandros recognized him as Head Trainer Hartus Profias himself.
Around the room, cadets sat before various control panels. Alexandros recognized the engineering, navigation, and communications panels from where he stood. This was his first time on the bridge of the
, as his team had not yet worked their way to the rotation on this point. The cadets on deck noticed him, peering curiously.
“Cadet Alexandros, reporting as ordered.” He saluted, restraining a cough as he spoke.
The cadet captain turned around and faced him, a look of pure loathing and anger on his face. Alexandros nearly took a step back, eyes opening wide in shock as he recognized the face.
“Well, Cadet Alexandros, I see you’re trying to ruin a perfectly good airship with your sabotage.” Cadet Captain Kretarus stared at him.
He would be in charge of this airship right now, wouldn’t he?
Alexandros asked the gods as he steeled himself for what was to come.
“No response? Why did you deliberately damage the engine? Because of you we are now dead in the air, and we will be lucky just to get it working again!” Kretarus slammed his fist down in anger on the arm of the command chair. Several of the other cadets in the room flinched, but Alexandros stood steady.
“Sir, I was nowhere near the engine room at the time of the fire. I…”
“Liar! I’m certain it was you, trying to prevent me from gaining my
place,” he raged onward.
Alexandros looked past him at Profias, willing him to help stop this lunatic, but the man merely observed passively.
This must be part of the training.
Then another thought.
I wonder who is being assessed here.
All of a sudden it clicked into place. The set up, the preparation, the verbal attack.
His brain spinning from this thought, Alexandros didn’t hear much of the rest of the verbal haranguing being dished out by the “captain.” The other boy had moved closer, baiting Alexandros into responding. Contempt practically oozed off him.
“I did not do it, sir. I was not in the room,” Alexandros choked out. Kretarus laughed.
“Of course you were, you pathetic excuse for a Roman. Your family should have been exterminated decades ago. Why they let you, a festering little worm of a man, enter this institution, I’ll never know.” Kretarus chuckled at him. “Do you really think you belong here? You will never be one of us. Even the scholarship students have more balls and brains than you.” He paused again, obviously waiting for Alexandros to react.
Alexandros fought to control his anger, biting the inside of his check until he tasted the iron tang of blood in his mouth.
He is trying to get you to screw up your chance, stay calm
“Nothing to say, traitor? I knew you should never have been allowed on this vessel.” Kretarus struck him, leaving his ears ringing for a moment.
Blood boiling, Alexandros turned and hit back, a hard punch straight to the other cadet’s stomach. Kretarus doubled over, wheezing and gasping, before falling to the deck on his hands and knees. Forcing himself back under control, Alexandros saluted the prostrate captain.
“Thank you, sir. I will return to my post.” He turned smartly and stepped away, making it to the bulkhead before a voice stopped him.
“Guards! Arrest this traitor,” Kretarus cried out, voice rasping. The two cadets stationed at the doorway hesitantly moved to stop Alexandros.
“Belay that order. Return to your posts,” the instructor said quietly. His voice carried his authority throughout the room, and the guards immediately stepped back.
A bell rang, interrupting the tense situation on the bridge.
“Sir,” a cadet called out from the communications panel, his ear pressed into a speaking tube. “It appears as though they’ve discovered the cause of the fire. A grate was repositioned incorrectly inside the engine. The only people who could have done that were the maintenance crews while the engine was shut down. It allowed the coal and fire to fall back into the main intake flue instead of staying in the combustion chamber.”
The instructor nodded, as if he had known this all along.
“And the wounded?” Profias asked.
“All are recovering fine, just as you said they would, sir.”
“As for you, Cadet Kretarus, your posting as captain is up. Cadet Lormanis, you are to assume the captain’s position. Please allow… Cadet… Kretarus… a moment’s respite perhaps. He just had a hard spill after tripping over the chair.”
Profias looked at Alexandros with a stern gaze.
“That will be all, Cadet Alexandros.”
Alexandros saluted and left quickly.
How did Profias know so much?
Had Profias purposefully changed the alignment of that grate to test the crew?
Alexandros shivered slightly with the thought of his head instructor being a saboteur.
I seriously hope he doesn’t try to test us when I’m captain.
LEXANDROS SCANNED THE HORIZON WITH
his spyglass while standing on the small bridge of the training vessel HMAS
. The well-worn instrument was smooth in his hands, testifying to the generations of academia cadet use before his own.
From stem to stern, the small vessel was no more than a hundred feet long, the battered decks showing years of use. The hull was suspended from the long, oval gasbag above, the heavy canvas tapering to points at the ends. Unlike more modern airships, this one had a completely exposed deck, with the gasbag tethered to six points around the hull and large chains attached to sturdy rings holding both hull and gasbag in place. A simple, square command room sat aftwards amidships, protecting the vulnerable wheel and communications equipment. At the base of the stern, the single engine rumbled, propeller pushing the airship forward through the cloudy skies over the
This is a far cry from the
Alexandros conceded as he zipped up his uniform overcoat tightly against the brisk breeze.
The mission had been routine so far, if you could use routine to describe their first independent mission, absent of any trainers, observers, or teachers. In fact, the mood on board was one of glee, with the senior cadets positively quivering with excitement. Alexandros felt particularly lucky, as he had managed to draw the short straw for captaincy. Several of the cadets had clapped him on the back, and others gave him jovial mock salutes before embarking on their scout mission over the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
However, some cadets grumbled, and Alexandros knew he would have to gain their trust. Although he had been cleared in that nasty fire incident on the
, things kept happening on that ship. The ammunition locker was broken into at one point, and noxious fumes filled his sleeping cabin at another. He was nearly pushed off the gantry during a nighttime patrol by an unknown assailant. He could never pin the blame on Kretarus, but he believed that the other boy now held a blood vendetta against him.
Even in the best of times, the Mediterranean is full of pirates, cutthroats, and brigands
It doesn’t help that I have some on my own ship,
Alexandros thought as he swept his spyglass from one end of the horizon to another.
I wish I had been able to pick my crew, instead of getting stuffed in with this lot
. In an unfortunate, and probably intentional, turn of events, the
new crew was the worst the academia had to offer. Putting down his spyglass, he watched as two cadets attempted to readjust a stabilizing sail the wrong way. The cadets pulled fitfully at the crank. With a crack, the linkage snapped, causing one end of the metal chain to strike one of the cadets across the torso and arm.