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Author Topic: "Luftschiff"--A Story Taking Place Near the End of the Steampunk Era  (Read 701 times)
Snr. Officer
United States United States

Why do they always obfuscate the screws?

« on: January 27, 2009, 03:28:27 am »

Serving as a preface: I wrote this some time ago now, and will inevitably do some more work on it.  At the time that I wrote it, I did not think to post it here, as it felt a bit more "Diesel" than anything else, and it still does.  This said, I felt that I ought to post something by way of saying that I am still alive, but will likely be less active on the boards in the coming months, or at least until the new university semester settles down to a comfortable routine into which I can fit this community in some semi-regular manner.

A note on the language used in this story: I like German quite a bit, but I by no means speak it.  I realize that many native speakers might find my limited use of the language within this piece to be comical, if nothing else.  With this in mind, I thought the use of some German words to be entirely appropriate to the feel of this piece.

So, without further ado, I present you with "Luftschiff."

   The ticking of the clock was unbearable.  Walter could feel the whole office pressing in on him; ruining him.  He was sure that nobody had seen him enter the building, but that hardly mattered.
   “Mister Braun.”  Walter squirmed at the way Graf enunciated the word 'Mister.'  “I trust that you know why you're here?”
   “Yes, sir, Graf, sir.”  In the dim light of the room, Graf was only half-visible.  Walter fixed his eyes on the glass of brandy in Graf's right hand to keep from looking around nervously.  He wanted a drink badly, wanted simply to drink himself into oblivion, but knew that even a dozen stiff drinks wouldn't erase his problems.
   There was an expectant silence from the other side of the massive oak desk that terrified Walter more than any tirade could.
   “I messed up, sir.  I-I-I wasn't careful enough, I trusted the wrong sources.”
   Silence, still.
   “I didn't have my head clear, I didn't think enough.  Thompson, Albrechts, Petris, and Maurer were killed, and their ornithopters were lost.”  The damage was done, Walter waited dumbly for Graf to pass down his fate.
   It had all seemed so perfect when Walter was planning it.  He had heard about a civilian shipment of new, high-powered ornithopter engines through one of his reliable channels.  They were supposed to be easy pickings, a large slow freighter with a skeleton crew flying from Hamburg to Turin.  Walter had planned it all out, chosen a quartet of other pilots whom he outranked, and could be trusted to follow his orders.  It was his big break, Walter was sure that he would get promoted following such a big job.
   Their blitzenschmetterling-class ornithopters cut through the wispy clouds, closing quickly with the enormous freight ship they were soon going to hijack.  From below, the five ornithopters were difficult to see, the blue canvass of their undersides blending in with the sky so that they looked to be little more than hallucinations to anyone who happened to be looking up in their direction.  As one, the five craft dove towards the hulking mass of the twin gas bags that supported a ship that was little more than a shipping crate with engines bolted to it.
   Walter focused on his target, scanning the upper decks for anything out of the ordinary.  He wanted to be careful, meticulous; climbing up through the ranks of Graf's criminal syndicate, Unsere Familie, took skill and precision both in thought and in action.  The top deck looked clear; Walter flashed a signal to the rest of the formation, and took his ornithopter in for a landing.
   Wind rushed across the top deck of the ship, channeled roughly between the gas bags to create a difficult headwind against which Walter struggled to land.  The control sticks shuddered in his tense grip, but Walter kept an even heading, cutting power to the wings as soon as the wheels touched down, folding them and tying down his craft as soon as he had made space for the rest of his squad to land.
   Carbine in hand, Walter waited by the fore hatch while his squad landed.  The landings went as smoothly as could be expected up until Petris, who came in hard and fast, his wheels hitting the deck with enough force that Walter could hear them, even in the high winds.  Walter tensed, his finger on the trigger of his carbine, sure that a crewman would come up through the hatch at any second, but nothing happened.  Walter glared at Petris as he joined the rest of the squad, but said nothing; he would deal with Petris after they had taken the ship.
   Pulling open the hatch, Walter swept the dim corridor with the barrel of his carbine before descending the steep stairs.  The rest of the squad followed in short order, Thompson closing the hatch behind him as the last man in, and they all stood for a few moments, waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dim light.  There was nothing so simple as a sign pointing towards the cockpit, but a grouping of colored lines was painted on the floor.  Walter wasn't concerned; he had studied the blueprints of several similar cargo ships, and although he was unfamiliar with this particular model, he was sure that he could easily find everything he needed.
   Standing around the corner from the door to the cockpit, Walter wondered at how small a crew the cargo ship was running under.  Even with the bare minimum number of people needed to operate the ship, he had expected to encounter someone on the way down from the top deck, especially after the racket that Petris had raised with his landing.  Nevertheless, his squad had reached their first target without firing a shot.
   Peeking around the corner again, Walter could see the ship's lone armed guard: a bored looking man in faded military fatigues from some unknown nation, armed with a stubby scattergun.  Maurer, who was armed similarly, took Walter's place at the corner, peeking around for himself before rolling his whole body around the corner, rising from his crouched position and bringing his weapon to bear on the chest of the sleepy guard.  Walter made a gesture, and the rest of his men stepped out around the corner, all bringing their various weapons to bear on the unfortunate guard.
   Walter, making sure that the guard had surrendered, stepped out at last.  By way of his men, he drew the guard a little way away from the door to the cockpit, and brought him to the floor with a single strike from the butt of his carbine.  Hanging the recently surrendered scattergun from his belt, Walter took his place against the wall by the cockpit door.  Through the wall, he could hear an odd, rhythmic clicking, but thought nothing of it.  Carbine in his off hand, Walter threw the door open.
   Shots rang out, a slug splintering the wall opposite the doorway, and Walter ducked as he entered the cockpit.  A single pilot was sitting, hands clasped atop his head, and two bodies lay bleeding on the floor, both clad in the same battered fatigues as the unconscious guard outside.  The clicking that Walter had heard from the other side of the wall was louder in the cockpit, and seemed to emanate from a bank of metal cabinets that lined much of the three interior walls.
   “What are those?” Walter asked the pilot, gesturing towards the cabinets with the barrel of his carbine.
   The pilot said nothing, looking intently at his kneecaps.  Walter surveyed him critically.  The pilot wore a blue uniform with military rank insignia on it that indicated he was a captain.
   “I asked you what those cabinets are, Captain.”  Walter spat the last word, and emphasized it further by striking the pilot in the knee with his carbine.
   “Machines,” the pilot said simply, not showing any sign of the pain he must have felt from Walter's blow.
   “I knew that, what are they for?”
   “Flying.  They help me fly the ship.”
   “Well, I'm flying now, so I suppose that if we have a mechanical co-pilot, we don't need you anymore.”  Another quick blow, and the pilot was slumping in his seat, breathing gently.  “Maurer, stay here; the rest of you go check the cargo.”
   Walter shoved the pilot unceremoniously from his seat and sat down at the controls, surveying the unfamiliar array of levers and switches.  Nothing was labeled clearly, that would have been too much to expect, but the basic controls seemed to be the same as the freighters Walter had flown in the past, and he soon had the ship pointed towards his drop-point.  No sooner had Walter set the new course then he heard shots coming from the rear of the ship.  The shooting kept on going, much longer than Walter thought it should take to dispatch a few crew members, and the shots sounded progressively closer as he waited for the fighting to subside.
   There were running feet outside, and then Petris dove through the open doorway, out of breath and bleeding from several ragged holes in his jacket.  “It's the army,” he managed after a few moments, “there were soldiers in the hold; lots of them.”
   Walter hardly waited for Petris to finish; he had jumped from his seat at the word 'army,' and was at the door by the time Petris had finished.  The sound of shooting was close; Walter bolted down the narrow corridor by which he had come to the cockpit, slinging his carbine over his shoulder and fumbling the commandeered scattergun from his belt.  Behind him he could hear running feet, and more distantly the sounds of continued fighting.  Glancing back as he rounded a corner, Walter saw only Maurer running behind him.
   Out on the top deck, the gusting wind nearly knocked Walter off of his feet as he scrambled towards his blitzenschmetterling and loosed the cords that were holding it still on the deck.  Even in the relatively short time it had been parked, the ornithopter's engine had been cooled by the winds, and Walter cursed the forced cold-start as he stomped on the starter pedal.  Behind him, Maurer was having similar difficulties, but both engines finally started, and two pairs of canvass wings slowly unfolded and began to flap.
   Walter throttled up, and lifted from the deck of the enormous ship as the first soldiers sprang from the fore hatch, aiming their carbines at the two ornithopters.  Having gotten off the deck, Walter backed off the throttle and slid backwards through the air above the deck, while with one hand he took wild shots at the soldiers, causing them briefly to scatter.
   As soon as he cleared the aft deck, Walter put his ornithopter into a steep dive, getting him out of range of the soldiers' guns as quickly as he could manage.  Among small craft, he was alone in the sky.
   “There is little room for failure in Unsere Familie, Mister Braun.”  Graf's voice startled Walter; he didn't speak much to his lackeys.  He rarely had to say much to get anyone to talk.  “If you were lower in my organization, I would have to let you go, but you have been resourceful in the past, and that has gotten you to where you are now.  What I am thinking is: you can get yourself out of this.  If you can't, then maybe I will reconsider.”
   “Yes, sir.”  Walter was relieved; he thought about some of the people he had known who Graf had 'let go.'  It wasn't pretty; they took you up, tied you to a large gas bag, and let you go.  If you were lucky, you were given a knife to cut the ropes with—or other things.  If you weren't lucky, you either froze, or ran out of air.
   “If you make up for everything of mine that you lost, maybe I won't let anyone know how—resourceful you are; how you get out of bad situations when others don't.”
   Walter waited, but nothing more was said.  As soon as he realized there was going to be nothing more, he got up quickly and left.
   Walter had thought for weeks.  There was no way he could see that he could get away; it was enough that Graf knew everything about him, it was expected.  He could cut that rope at any time and the sword of self-serving cowardice would fall, ruining Walter.  Walter had to do something big.  There was no promotion in his near future, no way to sit back and give orders from somewhere safe; he had to go out and do things for himself.
   Cold wind rushed through the open cockpit of Walter's ornithopter as he flew above the low, gray clouds that were all he could see below him, conforming to the curvature of the earth.  Far below him, he could see the glimmer of two gas bags, each the size of a bean from his distance.  He sat, moving happily with the flapping of his ornithopter's wings for a few moments, relaxed, then pushed his stick as far forward as it could go, cutting power to the wings and pulling them back close to the fuselage.  In front of him, the vision of the twin gas bags grew and reddened.
   The ship passed, rising quickly away from Walter, and he strained at the stick, pulling the nose of his ornithopter level with the horizon as he hit the clouds.  Power was returned to the wings, and Walter circled beneath the airship, being sure not to pass in front of it.  He was sure it was the same ship, or the same kind of ship at any rate.  He flew upward again, coming to the level of the top deck.  Everything looked the same, but it wasn't.
   Walter touched down softly, securing his ornithopter as before, then pulled a small armory from behind his seat.
   The dim corridors were quiet and empty, and Walter moved slowly along the route he had last traversed at a run.  There wasn't a guard by the cockpit door this time around, and Walter rushed past the door as quietly as he could, hoping that the clicking of the pilot's helper would cover the sound of his passing.
   The ship seemed even more deserted than it had previously as Walter made his way aft towards the cargo hold.  Since getting out of the howling wind of the top deck, he had heard only the occasional mechanical noise and the sounds of his footsteps.  The ship seemed almost dead to him, but Walter knew now that it wasn't the same ship.  He hadn't seen any evidence of the firefight that had accompanied his last hijacking attempt, and there were other differences.  The corridors were all a slightly different color, different shades of gray and brown.  Walter was so lost in all the little differences that he barely noticed that he had reached the door to the cargo hold.
   Emerging from his darkly nostalgic reverie, Walter put his ear to the wall beside the doorway, but heard only the distant sounds of the ship's engines.  Slowly, he turned the handle, then threw the door open, stepping away and waiting for the first shot.
   After a completely peaceful moment, Walter peeked through the doorway.  The hold was dark and still.  Walter shut his eyes and struck a match, then held it above his head as he entered the hold.  Looking around in the few seconds of dim light the match provided, Walter could see only crates.  Another match allowed Walter to find the lights.
   Walter walked carefully between the crates, the muzzle of his scattergun trying to point everywhere at once, but there was nobody in the hold save himself.  This was it; Walter stood admiring his redemption when a sound caused him to turn.
   Behind him, filling the doorway, was a man with a gun.  He took several limping steps into the hold, keeping the gun trained on Walter's chest all the while.  As he moved, the light caught the captain's bars on his breast, making them stand out against the blue of his uniform.
   “Well hello, Captain.  I suppose the wonders of technology let you step away for a few moments?”
   The pilot smiled.  “Long enough.”

It's not a skirt, it's a kilt; and ye ken why it's called a kilt?  Because I kilt everyone who called it a skirt.

You won't get far trying to argue semantics with an English major.

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