by David Barber
As a child, Einar Sokkasson saw an Imperial zeppelin burn.
In those days, his father captained the airship Lavransdatter and his second-in-command, Sigrid Njalsson, was still a beardless young man. The flames had shone in his father’s eyes as he spun the wheel, uttering oaths to urge his own ship away from peril.
A dull glow lit up the interior of the zeppelin, a girdered ribcage with a heart of hydrogen fire. Blackened fragments swirled away into the air and a vast plume of smoke and sparks dirtied the sky. He remembered tiny figures tumbling silently.
Njalsson had placed a heavy hand on the young Sokkasson’s shoulder and wondered if he would jump or burn. Sokkasson had debated that question with himself, thinking it a choice that men must make, never guessing brightness would fall upon him one day.
Though closer to death with each passing day, Lars Thorsson still insisted on speaking for the geiger crew. One lad counted clicks, while another watched sand falling through an upended minute glass. Cancer had made Thorsson shockingly gaunt and clouded his eyes, the price of a raid for machine parts in the ravaged lands of Britain.
That had been Einar Sokkasson’s first voyage in command of the Lavransdatter; the beginnings of his reputation as an unlucky airship-captain, his men struck down with the bloody flux, combing hair from their heads in clumps. Thorsson was a comrade from the days before pride and arrogance had divided Sokkasson from his father.
The man in the tailored black uniform of an Imperial Colonel called himself Franks, and he was growing impatient. They were far off-course for North Dakota and he suspected the Captain pursued some scheme of his own. They sat in a long narrow cabin, glassed down one side, and called the chart room by tradition. In the wheelhouse, Thorsson called by the count, twenty.
“North Dakota can be reached across the Great Lakes,” said the Imperial scientist at Franks’ elbow. He proffered an ancient map by way of proof but Sokkasson ignored the skraeling.
To Franks, Sokkasson said: “Someone did not like this Chicago. Winds blow over the craters. Listen to the geiger even this far north.”
The endless slicing of the air by the great propellers filled the silence between them. In the darkness below, eastern Canada kept its secrets.
“By the count, thirty-five and rising.”
“How many Imperial zeppelins have explored the Americas?” Sokkasson’s face bore an old scar that grew livid when he was riled.
True, the Imperium had its biplanes, fuelled by precious gasoline, but it was only the steam-powered airships of the Northmen that ventured across oceans.
“By the count, fif…” Thorsson’s voice was lost in a fit of coughing.
Poisonous airs from the Americas blew out to sea, and Northmen told tales of airships returning with sickened crews and worse, drifting with no living man at the helm. Sokkasson’s father was famed for pioneering northerly routes that avoided the blighted eastern seaboard.
“The Imperium paid you good gold,” resumed Franks.
“You cannot change what cannot be changed.”
“By the count, twenty-five and falling.”
If the Captain felt relief he did not show it. Instead, he questioned his grizzled second-in-command about fuel and water.
“And where will I find you, Captain?”
Sokkasson rose to his feet. “Where I choose to be, damn your eye.”
“Polar easterlies, you see,” Njalsson explained to Franks when they were alone. He seemed unmoved by events. “Winds that blow down from the Arctic. Cold but clean. The Captain keeps us safe.”
Njalsson had a cast in one eye and vanity made him turn his face to hide it.
“The Captain is not an easy man,” he added. “But you can trust him.”
It was so patently untrue that Franks could think of no reply.
Sokkasson was clambering amongst the gasbags inside the dim cathedral spaces of the airship, squeezing his bulk along the catwalks. One of the Ragnar brothers was looking for leaks, carrying a bucket of soapy water and a brush.
“Captain.” He pressed himself into a gasbag to give Sokkasson leeway.
They stood too close in the narrow space. The steady beat of the engines was strangely magnified here.
Sokkasson was not a likeable man. Prudent souls learned not to cross him, though Northmen were not prudent by nature and Sokkasson had used his fists on crewmen before. The man watched the Captain’s large backside disappear up a ladder, then leaned and spat into the shadows below.
Guilt often led Sokkasson here. To fill these gasbags he had been forced to sell himself. Hydrogen contaminated with air was cheaper. And more liable to explode. This was something he did not share with the crew. The heft of Imperial gold had brought him to the Americas, besting his father’s voyages, but he was damned in his heart as a hireling.
Franks hurried to the wheelhouse to see the Moorish craft. Below were mountains with edges sharp as chisels, each one capped by snow, brilliant in the evening light. The Lavransdatter floated smoothly over ridges ragged with dark fir, reflecting in circular lakes, blue and sterile.
Njalsson pointed aft at a distant white speck and Franks raised his binoculars.
They had been followed since Iceland; two Moorish dirigibles glimpsed occasionally amongst the clouds. Franks knew then that spies and collaborators had betrayed his mission, yet the Moors were still ignorant of his destination else they would not need to follow.
“I thought we had lost them.” Franks turned accusingly to Sokkasson. “You told me this.”
The Captain bristled. “Moorish craft have gasoline engines. They do not paint the sky with smoke.”
Njalsson broke the angry silence. “There is no fuel for them here, Colonel. To come this far they must carry nothing but gasoline.”
Towards evening, Captain Sokkasson steered them into a towering cloud bank, then changed course and height. White fog pressed against the windows of the wheelhouse and Sokkasson ordered the engines stopped. They drifted on in unnatural silence as propellers swung to a halt.
Captain and mate leaned from the wheelhouse, cupping their ears. The distant drone of engines grew louder. Then somewhere, another captain ordered his own motors cut and stood listening, the certainty of failure growing within him. When the cloud finally thinned, the Moorish dirigible was pale below them.
“You know what to do,” Sokkasson told the mate, while the Lavransdatter stooped like a cautious hawk onto the blind top of the Moorish craft and barbed harpoons were fired to snag the internal skeleton.
Franks saw the crew knew their roles well. When Northmen were not paid by the Imperium, they lived as raiders and pirates; they had executed attacks like this before, and not only on Moorish craft.
Winches hugged the Lavransdatter close to the dirigible in a violent embrace, and soon the boarding party had penetrated into the upper gantries of the Moor. Franks hesitated, his mission too important to be risked in a scuffle, but to do nothing was beyond him. He led his troopers down the boarding ladders.
Njalsson strode the length of the gantry, ripping into gasbags — Moors were desperately trying to force their way up from the lower decks — a Moorish crewman and one of his trooper ran at each other with pike and bayonet, and toppled from the walkway, pierced together — he blocked a thrust with his blade and the young Moor looked surprised and gushed blood — revealing Njalsson behind, knife in hand, teeth bared in a fierce grin.
“Get your troopers out,” he panted.
Moors were scaling a ladder and Franks hacked at the topmost man, dropping him onto those climbing beneath. He glanced about, making sure none of his troopers remained, then clambered up into the Lavransdatter.
Once the grapples were cut, the Moorish dirigible sank below them, engines roaring, quickly lost in clouds and darkness.
“Are they finished?” Franks wanted to know. He straightened his uniform and handed his bloodied sabre to a trooper.
Njalsson shrugged, thinking of the fate of the Moorish crew, forced to abandon their craft in the wastes below.
These cold windy plains were once called Manitoba. Sokkasson brought the Lavransdatter in low and his men anchored them down in a turmoil of their own smoke and vapour. Soon the crew were felling trees for fuel. Sokkasson grew irritated by the Colonel’s presence in his wheelhouse and went to shout at his men, leaving Njalsson on watch.
Franks had made it his business to learn about Sokkasson. How some careless word had divided father from son, followed by recriminations both believed true and in their pride neither would retract. But when Sokkasson heard of his father’s illness of the blood — common now in the modern world — he had returned to demand his birthright, the airship Lavransdatter. Men had died before his claim was recognised.
Later, there were shots outside and men running through the trees.
From the start, Sokkasson had forbidden loaded guns aboard the Lavransdatter. The hole from a musket ball could be patched, it was the burnt wadding from the shot. He had seen an airship aflame once, he said.
A breathless trooper reported they had got away.
“Most likely trappers,” said Njalsson. “Of no concern to us.”
“My troopers were ordered to take prisoners,” Franks explained. “For information.”
Njalsson shrugged. “Not worth making enemies.”
“What do we care for these Americans.”
“We might come back here one day.”
Franks had allowed his orders to be questioned in front of one of his men. Belatedly he dismissed the trooper.
Thorsson’s lungs failed him at the end. A younger voice rose in alarm. “It’s sixty, no, seventy and rising! By the count,” the boy added.
Sokkasson elbowed the helmsman aside and spun the wheel. Ponderously they turned away, while Franks studied the succession of old craters stretching to the south. When they had put the hot spot behind them, and Sokkasson was inking Grand Forks in red on his geiger chart, he heard the skraeling explaining to the Colonel.
“Long ago, someone aimed for the fort at Minot, but their shots fell short. Those were the craters.”
Snow and tundra passed below them.
“Perhaps the fort remains undamaged,” mused the scientist. He was so short he raised his chin as he peered through the glass of the wheelhouse. To preserve their dignity, no one answered him.
It was a low concrete structure, stained with age and of uncertain purpose. It was surrounded by a rusting fence that had caught scraps of plastic and rag, fluttering like the ruin of some bleak carnival. The airship chugged to a halt, propellers winding down, steam venting from its boilers.
“Unopened!” the excited scientist confirmed. Urged on by Franks, his troopers finally forced a metal door to reveal the staircase to an underground chamber.
Sokkasson never had cause to learn patience; finally he demanded to know what the troopers were looking for.
“Imperial business,” Franks was offhand. “It need not concern you.”
Njalsson saw the wrath spring to his captain’s face and quickly looked away.
“We are still far from home,” warned Sokkasson. “Remember that.”
“We have them!” cried the scientist, panting up the metal stairs. Behind him, troopers strained at heavy canvas sacks.
He looked from one face to another. “What is happening?”
They left Lars Thorsson in North Dakota. The Captain spoke words over a shallow grave in the frozen earth, the crew standing in silence as snow began to fall. Colonel Franks watched impatiently. Later, as they got underway, his precious cargo safely stowed, Franks dared to believe their enormous good luck might just hold.
Captain Sokkasson clambered aft along a catwalk. If memory served, there was a hatch to the room where the Imperials guarded their secret. He lowered himself down amongst canvas bags, and it took only moments to realise each concealed an identical metal cone, standing shoulder-high to a man and burnished smooth as old armour.
Positioned between the great spinning props, the rear windows of the gondola offered a view of their smoke and steam trailing away into a luminous sky. Unobserved, his face set into the expression that men avoided. He was rearranging canvas to conceal his intrusion when the Imperial Colonel spoke.
“I knew you would not let it rest.”
The Captain met his gaze steadily. “What are these things?”
“The future of the Imperium.”
Moorish dirigibles and their fanatical soldiery raided across half of Europe, opposed by a handful of biplanes. “The Moors have endless oil, and we do not. Always they press harder.”
Franks said no more, yet in his imagination, with these devices, carried by airships like this perhaps, the Imperium could lay waste their holy places, harvest their cities like wheat, destroy them utterly.
The Imperial scientist wiped his face with a trembling hand. “These fuses work by electricity but there are… complications.” The innards of the device were spread out on the floor like a gutted animal.
The man took off his spectacles. He resembled something small and startled.
“I asked if they will work,” Franks repeated.
“They could be detonated by connecting certain wires by hand,” the scientist said. “But we are not Moorish fanatics. Who would volunteer for such a thing?”
He suddenly vomited blood, black and copious, onto the floor at Franks’ feet.
Behind Sokkasson stood his crew, those not on watch with Njalsson or struck down with the bloody flux. Most carried axes or a cutlass, one a shovel from the boiler room. Franks motioned his troopers to fix bayonets. Northmen and Imperials faced each other down the narrow corridor.
“Jettison your cargo,” demanded Sokkasson. “Before it poisons us all.”
“Property of the Imperium. It will not be touched.”
“You think your toy soldiers will stop us?”
Wordlessly, Franks took a musket from a trooper and fired it outwards, shattering window glass.
The crew recoiled. “You risk loaded guns?” said Sokkasson, appalled.
Franks looked beyond the Captain. “Will you blame me for Lars Thorsson’s death also? It is the air here that is poisoned.”
“Bah! The sickness started when you brought your cargo aboard.”
“We all know your captain is cursed.”
It was something no man uttered in Sokkasson’s hearing.
Ragnar broke the silence. “It is rumoured Einar Sokkasson bought hydrogen fouled with air.”
And when his captain did not turn on him in fury, someone swore softly. They knew what it meant; coin saved against the unimportance of their lives.
“Killed his own father,” muttered another.
“Who says that!”
“Let Sigrid Njalsson take you home,” added Franks, blowing on the flame. “You trust him.” He saw the change in their faces and the captain saw it too.
“Damn blast you all!”
No one dared to stop him shouldering past. He turned back to shout. “I’ll bring this ship down before letting you have it, Franks.”
With a final effort Franks hauled the scientist to the trapdoor and opened it. Far below was ocean. Imperial lands grew closer each day and their cargo was almost safe. The scientist groaned. This crew needed no reminder that a sickness spread amongst them.
The tumbling body became a dot, and was lost.
Sitting to regain his breath, Franks wiped dark blood from his nose.
Njalsson avoided Iceland. A Moorish captain whose prey had escaped might loiter there, so they detoured south instead. But when they encountered a storm too vast to be avoided, it drove them relentlessly back northwards. No one argued when Sokkasson took the wheel, fighting the weather all night. Finally he let the storm compel them where it urged.
Unable to sleep for the nausea that rolled over him in waves, Franks found Njalsson in the chart room at dawn.
“I thought the Captain had finished us,” Njalsson admitted. “But storms blow in circles you see. Sokkasson flew us into the southern airstream. Now it will carry us safely back.” He glanced accusingly at Franks. “I do not know another Captain that could have done it.”
Next day, Njalsson fetched Franks to the wheelhouse. For a moment he was disoriented; still dreaming of airships nosing into clouds like silvery fish. A fresh wave of sickness gripped him. Wordlessly, Njalsson pointed out the white dirigible, already close enough to make out the Moorish script along its side. The second of the craft sent after them.
“Your cargo will kill us yet,” spat Sokkasson. “You are here because I need to know if they want us dead, or if they will settle for your treasure.”
Motors were housed in sleek nacelles beneath the Moorish craft; they growled louder as the dirigible gained on them.
“What can they do if we just press on?”
Before Sokkasson could answer, there was a puff of black-powder smoke from the long gondola beneath the dirigible, and moments later, a dull boom.
“They have cannon,” breathed Sokkasson. “On a hydrogen airship.”
He turned to Njalsson, and for a moment struggled with his vengeful heart. “Take men and see where we’re holed. Get Ragnar…”
Through his binoculars, Franks made out figures in the wheelhouse. They gestured downwards. Sokkasson must have seen it too; the Lavransdatter dipped towards the distant Icelandic coast.
“They can have you and your cargo both, and be damned.”
There were no more cannon shots. The Moorish craft slowed and kept pace alongside.
“There are gasoline tanks aboard that airship,” Franks told his troopers. “Aim for them, for the gondola.”
To begin with perhaps, no one noticed gunfire from an airship trailing its own clouds of steam and smoke, the shots drowned by the noise of motors, but then the blades of the dirigible changed pitch, and it began to veer away.
“Keep firing,” the sergeant-at-arms bellowed. What had started as volley fire became ragged as each man reloaded as fast as he could.
The Moorish cannon boomed again, and Franks was sure he saw the ball coming towards him. He straightened, then heard it rip through the Lavransdatter above.
On the dirigible, gasoline must have been pouring from peppered tanks, washing down corridors, the air shimmering with fumes, and perhaps it was that last muzzle flash that ignited it.
They stared open mouthed as the Moorish craft was engulfed in flame.
Agents of the Imperium found Sokkasson in Bergen, on the Nord coast, where the Lavransdatter was laid up. This time their gold was barely enough to pay off his debts and hire a crew. Who would fly with airship-captain Sokkasson now? Men demanded coin in advance and the crew were mostly strangers.
After they lifted from Gdansk and turned south — Imperium territory all the way to the Alps — a crewman appeared in the wheelhouse.
“That Colonel Franks is waiting in yon chart room,” the man said, offhand. He was one of the new ones, a shifty Scot. His gaze took in the geiger crew, the wheel, the controls.
“I can find you work,” growled Sokkasson, and the man shrugged and slouched away.
Sokkasson had no intention of being at the Imperial’s beck and call. He stood by the wheel, repeating curt orders he had already issued. Finally he pulled aside the curtain to the chart room.
The five months since their expedition to the Americas had aged the Colonel terribly. His features were wasted, his neck scrawny and loose in his collar; it was like seeing Lars Thorsson in Imperial black. His head nodded as he dozed, and it was the vulnerability of the sleeping man that shocked Sokkasson most.
The Imperial roused himself. “Captain.”
He held out a thin, blotched hand and Sokkasson hesitated at the tainted touch of it.
Contempt twisted the lip of the dying man. “I hear Sigrid Njalsson no longer flies with you.”
It was no concern of the Imperium. Sokkasson could feel the airship lifting and he feigned interest in the view from the glassed side of the chart room. In a frail voice, Franks spoke of their route, across the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, over water wherever possible, matters already fixed. He added that his troopers had stowed the cargo on board.
Sokkasson brought himself to look into the ravaged face. “What cargo is that?”
“A secret until we were under way. There are factions within the Imperium that seek an accommodation with the Moors.”
Sokkasson pursed his lips at this nonsense. The Moors did not compromise. “A bribe then?”
The Imperial briefly won his struggle for breath. “Something to end this business.” He shook his head. “You are picturing treasure, Captain. Imagine a relic instead; imagine something for their holy men at Mecca.”
There was something amiss here, but Sokkasson could not find it. “And what of you?” He could not think how to say it, the part played by a dying man.
“The Imperium asked for a volunteer,” the Colonel managed, after a rattling cough. “Someone to deliver a message.”
“And the return journey?”
The sunken eyes glittered. “You think I will be returning?”
The propellers are stilled. We drift through the dark in silence. Chance we arrived at night. I tell Sokkasson to wait for dawn.
In my dream, we are lost and risk falling into Moorish hands. I mumble words and open a trapdoor into the wind. Below is a trackless ocean. Perhaps it is our secret that must be jettisoned. This baleful payload holds us hostage to the future, and we sicken even as we guard it jealously.
Here are the wires and battery I have been given; it has been explained how to connect them to our cargo. They say I shall feel nothing. And dawn will come early to Mecca.