Red Fire, White Steam, Blue Ocean
1908. Somewhere over the English Channel…
Verity collapsed her brass telescope and winced as the pyre of yet another British airship blazed on the rough waves. The odds of surviving this suicidal folly dwindled with each crimson flash. She shielded her face from the sting of lateral rain. All around her, metal warped and canvas groaned as the storm gathered fury. What she wouldn’t give to be back in Angola right now, even in that godforsaken heat she was famous for griping about. Anywhere but here! Gusts battered the Empress Matilda’s bullet-shaped, hydrogen-filled envelopes like a flurry of fists, swinging the deck and veering the airship away from the line of buoys below. Verity lurched against the taffrail, bit her tongue.
“Tangeni,” she yelled for’ard through the pain.
Her stoic coxswain spun round. “Yes, Eembu?”
“Commence separation. Have Mbenga’s team man the upper deck for you. Burton and Kwame can steer. Have Kibo meet me in the bell house.” She clung to her sou’wester’s chin strap with pruned fingers, and grinned bitterly. “It’s time to divorce the Empress.”
Tangeni grimaced at their private joke, baring his too-many white teeth, and then shook his head. “English women crazier than English men.”
“Oh, you haven’t seen the half of it yet.”
He snatched up the megaphone and bellowed orders to the crew. His oversized silver-blue slicker made him look like a fat sea lion leaning over the brass railing—a far cry from his hunting days in the wilds of Namibia.
A lull in the wind allowed her to dash safely to him across the poop deck. After placing her hands on his shoulders, they touched foreheads—perhaps for the last time. Her mission, they both knew, was now a halfpenny short of impossible. For years Tangeni had looked forward to seeing England for the first time. Only six miles shy, he would probably never be closer than he was right now.
The image of Captain Naismith hanging over the side amidships, burning to death in the steam jet from a ruptured boiler below as he reached for those poor drowning sailors, seized her heart. That was the moment she’d inherited this responsibility, this…countdown to oblivion.
“Enda nawa, Tangeni,” she said. Regret ached through her shivering frame.
As she hurried down the iron steps to the quarterdeck he called after her, “When rain stops, I buy us ice creams in Piccadilly.”
The awful weight of finality squeezed the air from her lungs. Salutes from Reba and Philomena, the two statuesque Kenyan girls who maintained the balloons’ canvas and lines, steeled her resolve, quickened her descent to B-deck. This crew was so far from home on a mission so alien to their lives in Africa, she at least owed it to them to give her very best, to reward their faith in English ingenuity. The admiralty's emergency telegram had snatched away their promised vacation and sped up their transfer to the London fleet—rotten enough circumstances for her first command without the threat of imminent death.
BAC EMERGENCY ALERT STOP EMPRESS MATILDA PROCEED TO TRANS CHANNEL PIPELINE BUOYS SIXTY TO SEVENTY FIVE WITH UTMOST DISPATCH JOIN GANNET FLEET STOP OVER DOZEN ENEMY VESSELS SUNK OR SINKING BELIEVED TO CARRY FRAGILE FRZ THREE EXPLOSIVES EXTREME RISK TO PIPELINE STOP DEFUSE BOMBS AT ALL COSTS
At all costs? Those callous words hammered home as Verity ran to the square bell house in the centre of B deck, her heavy boots thumping across the wooden floor, then clanging on the riveted iron plates upon which the diving bell stood. At all costs? Granted, a rupture in the Dover-Calais petroleum pipeline would grind British industries to a halt for days, possibly weeks until it was repaired, but was that really more important than the lives of several good Gannet crews? Countless British Air Corps personnel had already drowned or been blown to bits tonight whilst trying to recover and defuse those enemy explosives safely aboard British vessels. The storm was simply too volatile, the waves too punishing for that kind of retrieval.
She had no choice but to take the fight to the sea bed.
She remembered the words in her sister Bernie’s final telegram from Angola, the last words she’d ever written before the rebel attack. “Come join me, sis. You will love it here, I promise.” And in the top corner of the telegram, the ubiquitous British Steam Age motto stamped by the authorities, “Ambition Soars. The World Is Yours.”
Bernie had believed utterly in the empire, and Father had given a proud, heartbreaking eulogy at her funeral. If those two people she’d always looked up to in her life reckoned the flag was worth dying for, if they measured humanity’s progress with such sacrifice, who was Verity to argue? This was a vital mission. It was her chance to prove her worth to the cause.
No pressure, Verity. She eyed the diving bell’s dull, copper curvature behind the square storehouse. Literally, no pressure. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Sea spray whipped through open seams all around as crewmen piled up from C-deck to help rotate the iron capstans fore and aft, cranking A-deck up to the clasps’ tensile limits. As soon as the Empress’s hull touched water, A-deck would lift free and Tangeni would try to fly it home through the storm, leaving the remainder of the vessel, a ship in its own right, to anchor to the buoy line and complete the mission. But so many things could go wrong with an uncoupling in calm weather, let alone in such an hellacious brew.
“Eembu, give me your hand,” Kibo urged as he clung to the sturdy bell house rail. She gripped his arm just as the Empress thumped bow-first into the sea. The impact threw her against his broad shoulder, winding her. The capstan teams were floored like ten pins.
“Tell them to…hold steady…crank on my mark,” Verity struggled between gasps. Kibo relayed her commands, held her while she doubled up to recover. Christ, of all the times to be winded…in the run-up to a crucial dive, when air meant everything.
The Empress listed dangerously to port. Howling gusts, yells and the sound of groaning metal filled B-deck. “Stop engine,” she said. Now Tangeni had solo propulsion as well as lift—A-deck’s propellers hummed faintly astern, above her. The vessel righted and she screamed to the signalman coordinating the two teams, “Lift her free!”
The heavy, zip-like clak-clak-clak of the rotating capstans quickened her pulse. She watched the signalman’s tongue wag nervously in rhythm between his tight lips. A deafening clatter from every direction made her cover her ears. The iron clasps had uncoupled. When she looked up, the ceiling was alight. The dirigible banked away above, tilted to forty-five degrees by the strong wind, its propellers spitting streams of rain behind it.
The full weight of the storm heaped upon exposed B-deck.
“Kibo—” she now had to shout again through the fury, “—move those men from the capstans to the bell winch. As soon as I’m in, have them lift me over the side. You remember the drill?”
“Yes, Eembu. The captain went underwater plenty in the Indian Ocean. I oversaw all his dives.”
“Good man. When I’m down there, you’re captain here.”
The big man’s nose flared and his eyes bulged. He puffed his cheeks, saluted and then hurried aft, his familiar splay feet holding an amazingly straight line given the ship's tilt. Of all the officers on board, Verity had dealt with Kibo the least, as his duties tended to confine him to the steam engine rooms. His time spent maintaining and driving steam-powered automobile racers on the European circuits had inspired his brilliance in the ship’s engine room. He had to dress the smartest—he wore a waistcoat at all times—and his subordinates had to be drilled to a level of efficiency unsurpassed in the fleet. Anything less and he would launch into his racing diatribes, and one might be forgiven for thinking he’d not only designed those cars, but invented steam locomotion as well.
Verity closed her eyes, prayed that he was as good as he boasted, then with her bell partner, Djimon, set about transferring diving gear from the storeroom to the diving bell. All too heavy, all too unwieldy—all indispensible. Only two other officers on board the Empress Matilda were qualified for both deep sea diving and defusing explosives. Captain Naismith was now dead, Tangeni airborne—but she would have volunteered anyway.
Father, Bernie and Britannia were watching over her.
But tonight, alas, Britannia did not rule the waves.
She pinched her nose and swallowed several times as the diving bell descended, its thick copper shell groaning. Her ears clicked, signalling she’d equalized the pressure. “Djimon, you’re sure you know what to do?”
“Yes, Eembu. I haul you back up when you pull on lifeline.”
“Exactly. But not too fast. I don’t want the bends when I come up.”
“Don’t worry none, Lieutenant. I pull Captain Naismith up plenty times. He never gave cross word to Djimon. You in good hands.”
Verity believed that about him, as she did about Kibo and Tangeni before him. These were some of the most capable men she’d ever met—diligent and unflappable in the line of duty. It steadied her nerves a little, knowing she had such strong arms waiting to pull her up if things should go pear-shaped. The confined space, too, helped focus her on the incremental suiting-up procedure she’d practised dozens of times, and away from the overwhelming odds of the mission.
She sucked in a crisp breath. Inside the greening copper sphere smelled of rubber and wet beach towels. She stripped to her white brassiere and tan jodhpurs, and Djimon helped her into her closed, waterproof rubber suit, the valves of which would let water out but not in. Heavy rubber bands sealed the suit at the wrists, leaving her hands free. She could barely move a step in her leaded diving boots, which weighed around thirty pounds, added to which Djimon fastened lead weights to her chest and back to maintain equilibrium. Lastly, he affixed the clunky metal helmet with side and front windows to the neck of her suit. It quickly grew warm inside, and her heavy breathing became the noise of her whole world. All told, she weighed more than her huge African partner. Even standing was exhausting.
She tapped her knuckles on the helmet, signalling for him to attach the non-collapsible umbilical. Air pumped through this hose would give her oxygen to breathe, as well as regulating the pressure inside the helmet, keeping the water level below her head. A much bigger hose from the Empress fed the diving bell in exactly the same way, ensuring seawater never rose above the moon pool—the open, central access point in the keel. If she or the bell tipped too far from the vertical, she would drown. If either pump stopped working, she would drown. Indeed, the thread of her existence underwater was so slender, so fragile that a few cubic inches of second-hand air were all that kept her alive by proxy.
Inches—inches versus an eternity of deep, dark unknown.
Djimon feverishly wound the dynamo handle and the hull lights blazed on, illuminating the moon pool to a turquoise hue. She sat on the brass rim and lowered her heavy boots into the freezing water. Clutching her umbilical, Djimon pretended to blow into it for her, a joke that gave her such levity before she sank, it almost made her cry. She patted the tool belt on her waist for good luck, nodded and slid into the Atlantic.
Cold seized and throbbed through her as though she had entered the liquid heart of a glacier. Directly below, tall, wispy green stems drooped over a bed of murky sand. The bell’s lights revealed the wreckage of a medium-sized coalition freighter a short distance ahead, mere yards from the large black pipeline. A crew of thirty to forty enemy souls had been lost here—terrorists smuggling explosives into England, yes, but still a terrible waste of life. She shuddered. Her fingertips tingled icily. But Kibo’s undersea lookouts had done well to pinpoint this site for her, and he had anchored the Empress to the correct buoy cable. Now it was all up to her.
Ice creams on Piccadilly, she recalled Tangeni’s parting words. Easy does it.
Her boots gently touched the bottom. The suit’s top-heaviness gave her forward momentum as she leaned. Her clumsy steps formed an ungainly trudge but she didn't care. Her every breath amplified to a gasp inside the helmet but the rhythm kept her company. She reached the mangled brass bulwark and walked around it, mindful to keep her hose from snagging on a jutting end. Through her right window she glimpsed a tiny crimson flash. Moments later, a school of eel-like fish darted across her path and sand fidgeted all about, as though a distant but powerful impact had rippled the ocean bed.
Verity swallowed hard. A bomb had to have just exploded somewhere close to the pipeline. Had a BAC officer, just like her, been blown to bits while trying to defuse it? Too late to back out now. She looked up. The black cylinder stretched deep into the gloom on either side. Unmoved, assimilated by weeds and crustaceans, it resembled the charred remains of some colossal leviathan skeleton from ancient times. A kraken…which must not be cracked. Thank God her reliable bad puns were still intact.
She located the aft hold, partially collapsed, and crept through the splintered iron hatch. It was too dark inside, so she lit a flare from her tool belt and dropped it at the hatchway. Rose light flooded the hold, skewing the shadows of strewn boxes against buckled walls. In the middle of the floor, a shiny silver-and-black clarinet lay untouched. The last object she’d expected to find there. Silver bubbles from her valves collected on the sloping roof and rolled above a stack of long metal boxes marked EXPLOSIVO.
Christ. There were at least six boxes! FRZ-3 clockwork explosives were not difficult to defuse—the detonating coil could be removed with a screwdriver and a portable oxyacetylene cutter, both of which she had in her belt—but the explosive material itself was quite unstable. A heavy blow to any FRZ-3 bomb would explode it without the need for a detonator. Therefore she must be careful not to let anything hit the device or—God forbid—let one of the boxes spill.
She unfastened the cords holding the boxes in place and carefully, one at a time, lowered the five-foot-long containers flat onto the floor. Her pruned fingers shivered but the operation was well within her capabilities. She’d performed this job countless times on ships and in shallow water, usually on redundant British mines. Time, rather than difficulty, was now her biggest concern. Every minute she spent underwater prolonged the time she would have to decompress in the bell later on. If she were to surface too quickly, the gases in her bloodstream might create a dangerous, perhaps fatal bubble—an air embolism.
But she would have to take her chan—
The entire hold shook. A deep, twisting grind felt like something was tunnelling up through the iron wreck. She gazed up in horror as several rivets shot loose from the ceiling, allowing her bubbles to squirm through a gap. The metal began to warp inward, downward…onto the explosives!
A tremendous weight pressed the iron panels. She stumbled sideways over a fallen crate. Seawater gushed up her nose, making her cough. She righted herself instantly in mid-fall but lost her bearings. Still the ceiling warped, lower and lower. A few more feet and she'd be a memory.
Think, Verity, think. How can you save yourself and the pipeline? You can’t defuse the bombs now. Not here. What about—
That was it! She dragged the boxes out through the hatchway one at a time, barely sliding the last one away before the full weight of a huge steam funnel rent the iron apart. It crushed the hold completely.
The enormity of her narrow escape seeped in. She panted and watched a cloud of white smoke rise from the split funnel and envelop the black pipeline. It could so easily have been the shock heard throughout the empire. Major damage to the industries. The end of Verity Champlain. For some reason, the latter struck her as being the less important of the two. Why is that? She didn’t want to die. So what the deuce was she doing here, a martyr to deep sea petroleum? And why hadn’t that occurred to her before? The notion gouged a chilling void in the pit of her stomach. What insane confluence of events had led her to this spot? What destiny? Orders? She frowned and tugged a slimy stem of sea grass free from its roots in the sand.
A twitch on the slenderest thread of life had almost brought her whole world crashing down, and for what?
Maybe it was the pressure talking.
After blinking sweat from her eyes, Verity dragged the boxes to a safe distance and defused the hexagonal clockwork explosives in the bell’s light. She had to leave one, however, as her cutter ran out of acetylene. Instead she buried it in the sand at a safe distance from the pipeline, and then made her way back to the diving bell. One hard tug on her lifeline was all the signal Djimon needed to haul her slowly up. As she rose, several more crimson flashes lit the distant gloom.She blew damp strands out of her eyes, then heaved a sigh.
What had other crews gone through in the name of Britannia tonight?