(winner of the 1st annual Limestone Genre Expo Short Story Contest, published on the Limestone Genre website)
As airship crashes went, this one wasn’t going too badly. Of course, the port engine was missing – having been the first victim of the ballistic barrage from the USS Spiro Agnew, down in the lake below. And as far as Lieutenant Zadie could see (from her precarious position on the aft breezeway of the gondola) the ventral stabilizer had been shorn away too.
“There’s a long tear back aft!” She cried out, adjusting her goggles to zoom in on gash where the giant wooden fin had once stuck out from the belly of the ship. “It’s fluttering like mad!”
“Another hole on the starboard side!” Yelled a voice from steerage, inside the gondola.
“Keep her steady, son!” That was Captain Larkin, sounding unruffled and sonorous. A man of legends. “Let’s see if we can bring her down gently into Deadman’s Bay!”
Zadie dragged herself back into the gondola, watching the northern shore of Wolfe Island race towards them at an alarming angle.
“We’re not gonna make it, Captain!” sobbed the helmsman, hands white from gripping the altitude levers so tightly.
“We’ll make it. We’ll make it,” Larkin assured the bridge crew. Zadie caught the Captain’s eye; his returning stare spoke volumes: No. They weren’t going to make it.
“Have you got them with you, Agent Zadie?” He muttered to her and her alone. She slapped a hand to the breast of her beige flight-coveralls, feeling the flat, bulky package beneath. A single sharp nod was her answer. He nodded back, then mouthed one final word to her: go!
Zadie made to hesitate, but a sudden lurch in the ship catapulted her toward the starboard breezeway, where a bank of glide-wings were stored. With nervous but practiced ease, she backed into the nearest one, secured the straps, then wrenched firmly at the release crank. She came loose from the bulkhead with a clank, the weight of the strapped-on contraption overbalancing her. She teetered forward on one leg, her hip catching the guard rail, and toppled overboard.
Her breath caught, as she was buffeted by a wall of wind. Zadie twisted to face upwards, watching the Royal Upper Canadian Airship (RUCA for short) Molly Brant recede at an alarming rate. Five seconds to deploy! Her conditioning kicked in; she reached back for the release strap. Finding it on the first try, she pulled with all her might. A crack from behind her signalled the pressured-release of the wings; they unhinged in two rapid-fire steps, snap-snapping into place, catching the wind, and violently whipping her about.
Momentarily disoriented, she forced her eyes to focus on her surroundings. Recognizing the Bateau Channel beneath her, she reached her arms wide, grasping at the hand controls. Banking left, she brought her emergency glider northwards, towards the Upper Canadian shoreline.
“I’m not going to make it,” Zadie breathed into the wind, echoing the helmsman of the ill-fated Molly Brant. The water was rising up faster than the shoreline was nearing. If she hit the water with her wings on, the mass of the metal struts would sink her straight to the bottom of the St. Lawrence.
She grimaced, willing her body lighter. The tip of Point Frederick loomed tantalizingly ahead, the Martello tower’s main gun gleaming in the smog-filtered morning sunlight. And smoking. Smoking?
The crack of a 250-mil round accelerating out of its stainless steel barrel assaulted Zadie’s senses, even as the whoosh of it passing far too closely to her glider made her croon. In rapid succession, a ricochet of eleven gun blasts reached her ears. Am I too late? She thought, realizing that the entire array of twelve Martello towers along Cataraqui’s waterfront were now in active defence-mode.
Zadie’s more immediate concern was her landing, however. She was not going to reach land. Gauging her height, she paused for three seconds, then unhitched her straps, causing the glider to dip even more quickly to a watery landing. She ejected herself, hugging her arms tight about her, crossing her ankles. She Tensed. Waited. She was not kept waiting long.
An explosion of soundlessness. Darkness. Frigidness. Weightlessness.
Then something grabbed at her water-logged coveralls, yanking upwards. Zadie sputtered and shivered, as hands dragged her over the gunwales of a low-slung watercraft.
A voice. “Come on, wìdjìkiwe! It’s not time to swim!” A slap across the face. That got her attention. Zadie blinked, realizing that her googles had been torn from her head. Two figures resolved in front of her bare eyes: feather-topped brass headbands, matching plated face-filter and neck armour, bare shoulders, war paint. Shabot Obaadjiwan warriors – garrisoned at Fort Henry.
“Quit hitting me, I’m not swimming,” she growled.
“Only because Binesi dragged you out of the soup,” came the wry follow-up, in a voice Zadie knew well.
“Miigwan? What are you doing here?” Zadie asked, fiddling with her soaked smog mask. Her two warrior friends shared a look.
“Fetching you,” Binesi replied in his accented baritone, settling back in the canoe. “And them, if there’s time.” He pointed an oar over Zadie’s shoulder. She craned about, following the oar. Her guts twisted at the sight. There lay the Molly Brant: sinking mid-way across the channel to Wolfe Island, the flattened remains of the ballonet smothering the gondola – along with any survivors within. A half-dozen war canoes from Fort Henry were paddling towards the downed airship; a pair of small steamboats from the Royal Military College appeared to be doing the same.
“Did you find what you were searching for, wìdjìkiwe?” Miigwan asked her friend; Zadie checked the package under her drenched coveralls, nodding in relief and confirmation.
“So what went… wrong?” Binesi asked with a scrunched-up visage, as he steered their canoe towards the rocky shore.
“I must have been spotted leaving Sacket’s Harbor. As soon as I got back up to the Molly Brant, the Yanks sent out one of their lake frigates – the Spiro Agnew. It shot us down.”
“Well, it’s getting roughed up pretty good by our big guns,” the female warrior declared, nodding out over the lake.
“Just the Spiro Agnew? You sure it’s not an all-out attack?” Zadie asked, immediately fearing the answer…
Before either of her companions could answer, an explosion rocked Cataraqui, over by the main harbour. A fiery plume of smoke instantly began to rise from…
“…City Hall! What if Lady Rayne was…”
“Don’t worry, Zadie; your ogimà is up in the Fort. Waiting for you to get back.”
Lady Rayne, Governor of the City of Cataraqui and Commander of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces of Upper Canada, stood in front of a large square table. Her head was bare, her breathing mask loose around her neck. She wore the long sable robe that she was renowned for; her thigh-high boots were polished to a gleam – burgundy leather and brass buckles alike. Her arms were folded loosely in front of her.
Zadie stood opposite the Governor, shivering and dripping water. Her arms were crossed too, in an effort to stave off her shakes.
Flag officers and support staff filled the rest of the room, secure in a lower level of Fort Henry’s catacombs. Gas lamps hissed soothingly, warming the otherwise dank cave with their light.
“Agent Zadie. We await your report.” Lady Rayne’s English was clipped and continental. Zadie forced a cough, aware that her plunge into the lake had forced a metaphorical frog firmly down her throat.
“Ma’am. The intelligence we received was accurate. President Trump has been building a secret weapon just south of here, hidden in Black River Bay. Troop transports have begun to mass at Sacket’s Harbor, and airships at Fort Drum. They’re getting ready to invade.”
Before she finished her sentence, the senior officers began to mutter and protest amongst themselves. Rayne held up the palm of one hand to silence them.
“Show us your proof, please, lieutenant,” she asked softly – not a soul around that table mistaking the command behind the calmness. Zadie nodded wordlessly, retrieving the waxed canvas envelope from beneath her still-sodden clothes. She un-looped the flap tie, then liberated a thin brass tablet from within. She slid it onto a plate at the centre of the table, then flipped a small lever next to it. The gas lamps dimmed, their hissing replaced by the whir of fine gear-work from within the tablet. Light emanated from beneath the table, projecting a 3-D image into the space above it.
There floated a wire-framed image of the weapon, slowly rotating. President Trump’s voice – sounding thin and tinny – emanated from speakers on the tablet. As one, the officers moved in closer to hear.
“I call it the ‘Manifest Destiny’. There is no better name… and the day is coming when it will be unleashed on these Canadians.” There followed a moment of silence.
“The… Manifest Destiny…” The Governor whispered. “What exactly is it?”
“A ship, Ma’am,” Zadie explained. “But carrying only a single weapon. Strong enough to wipe out Cataraqui with one strike.”
“If this is true… what can be done?”
“The Yanks have no idea, Ma’am – there’s a way to defeat it.”
“Yes! You see, there’s this thermal exhaust port…”