486. The Cost of Empire 1

These next two weeks I am devoting four posts to an excerpt from my new steampunk novel The Cost of Empire.

Chapter One — Tick, tick 

There was a light haze over the sky above. The sea five hundred feet below sparkled, but the glare was easy on the eyes. It was typical North Atlantic weather for May, in the Year of Our Lord 18—, and of the Reign of Queen Victoria, year forty-seven, aboard Her Majesty’s Consort Class Dirigible, Anne of Cleves.

Daniel and David James saw none of this. They were busy clambering over, under, and about the two McFarland engines, looking for cracks or pinholes, and sniffing for the distinctive smell of leaking fuel. It was a bit of tricky business, since the engines continued to snort and whirl all the while. They were a maze of polished brass and shining gears, with shafts of oiled steel feeding power to massive cranks that sent power to the air screws. You could lose a finger — or a head — if you put it in the wrong place while crawling about.

The inspection never took less than twenty-five minutes, and they repeated it every three hours. There was no slacking of discipline as Her Majesty’s airships, filled with hydrogen and fueled by naphtha, were floating bombs.

Daniel climbed the short ladder to the catwalk as David did the same from the other side. Their first words were scripted by discipline. Daniel, who was senior by one week, asked, “Starboard engine report?”

David replied, “Starboard engine clean and tight. Port engine report?”

Daniel said, “Port engine clean and tight.” And he added, “Tick.”

David grinned and mimicked, “Tick.”

The ratings below glanced up from their work. Two smiled and one shook his head. The two cousins moved forward to a pair or racks and picked up canaries to continue their inspection. Canaries were not birds, although canaries in mines had carried out the same function fifty years previously. These canaries were thirty foot long poles of hex bamboo, with heavy glass syringes capped with valves, on one end. Daniel and David ascended the port and starboard ladders, with one hand for the rungs and the other for the canary, and managed to turn their ascent into an entirely unnecessary race.

Sub-Lieutenants are more than a little like puppies when no higher rank is watching. When they rejoined at the upper catwalk, David, who had arrived half a rung sooner, said, “Tick,” and Daniel responded in kind. They separated, Daniel going forward and David aft, then worked back toward each other.

The ring ribs divided the dirigible into many small coffers, any one of which might accumulate hydrogen leaking from a gas bag. The upper catwalk was high enough that the canaries would just reach the upper arch of the ship. Daniel dropped the lower half of his canary over the handrail so that it rotated to vertical, then shoved it up to within an inch of the outer skin. He pulled the lanyard connected to the syringe and it sucked in whatever gas was at that high arch. He then lowered it to his level and triggered the sparker inside the syringe.

Ratings called this making the canary fart. If there was leaked hydrogen in the heavy glass syringe there would be a brief, contained explosion; then everyone would be on instant alert until the leak was found and fixed.

No explosion occurred. It almost never did, but vigilance never let up. Daniel moved to the next coffer to repeat, and shouted down the catwalk to David, “Tick.”

The reply he got was unexpected. Full Lieutenant Ennis, all of twenty-seven years old and called Grandpa behind his back by the Sub-Lieutenants, stuck his head above the upper catwalk and shouted in his quarterdeck voice, “Damn your ticks, Mr. James. We all know we are on a vessel full of hydrogen and naphtha. We don’t need your infernal tick, tick, tick to remind us that we live inside a bomb. Now get below, stow those canaries, and man your stations. We’ve sighted a sub.” more Thursday. To jump straight there click here.


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