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Excerpt: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

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Welcome to #FearlessWomen! Today we’re featuring an excerpt from By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis, a Signal Airship novel available on May 15th. 

“All’s fair in love and war,” according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown of Durum becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, “Nothing’s fair except bombing those Vins to high hell.”

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up Garnia’s military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated Mistral crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum—only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

Chapter 1

“Up ship!”

At the word of command, His Majesty’s Signal Airship Mistral rose above the cratered, blood-spattered fields of Canard. The ship’s condition was little better than the field’s, with her wicker decks stained red, her envelope in tatters, and half her gas bags filled with inflammable air.

Josette Dupre, Mistral’s captain, stood in the center of the hurricane deck, enjoying the nearest thing to quiet she’d had in days. The only flaws in this rare moment of peace were the wicker creaking underfoot and the soft burble of paraffin running through fuel lines above.

The usual din would resume when the ship rose to her cruising altitude, but until then Josette basked in the silence. By unspoken, common consent, the crew went about their work without the usual racket, as if in appreciation of so precious and unusual an event as this.

“Good God, it’s quiet!” cried Lord Bernat Manatio Jebrit Aoue Hinkal, who stood to Josette’s right and who did not, it seemed, subscribe to such whimsical notions as common consent. “What say we all sing a song to liven things up? Does everyone know the words to ‘The Merry Monks of Melatina’?”

The crew met Bernat’s comment with the less enjoyable class of silence—the sort that hangs awkwardly in the air, hoping against all odds that true peace will return in a moment.

“No one?” Bernat asked, quite oblivious. “What about ‘The Sotrian Lady’? Everyone knows that.”

The crew made not a sound.

Josette set her eyes on the horizon, where a broad but ill-maintained road disappeared into the Magdalene Fens. She could just make out, rising above the morning haze, gun smoke from the Vinzhalian army’s desperate rearguard action, as they retreated toward the border town of Durum, pursued by Garnian cavalry. The cavalry would not pursue them as far as Durum, however. Durum—the town where Josette was born, and the town where her mother now lived under Vin occupation—would remain in enemy hands.

She put it out of her mind, and looked to the instrument panel above her station as the ship climbed. High above the wicker gondola of the hurricane deck, above the instruments, above the catwalk and the keel, Mistral’s nine enormous gas bags puffed out, growing larger as the pressure dropped with altitude. To Josette’s right, the much smaller gas bag who went by the name of Bernat said, “So no one’s even talking to me, now?”

At just under five thousand feet, Sergeant Jutes reported that the bags were at nearly their full size, and would have to be vented if the ship rose much higher, to prevent them from bursting.

“Rigging crews will make one last check for leaks, now that the bags are fully inflated,” Josette ordered. “Then we’ll spin up the steamjack.”

Sergeant Jutes repeated the order, shouting it back along the keel from his station at the top of the companionway. In the narrow spaces between gas bags, riggers crept like spiders across a web of lines and plywood box girders. Between frames, they climbed out onto longitudinal girders of questionable integrity, their backs squeezed against the inside of the canvas envelope as they checked the outer faces of the bags.

Such a thorough inspection prior to starting up the steamjack was not routine, but neither was carrying inflammable air. As the name implied, it had the nasty habit of igniting at the slightest pretext.

“Five-inch hole in bag three, Sarge!” a feminine voice called from the other side of the ship’s canvas skin, directly above the hurricane deck. Jutes repeated the report, shouting it down the companionway and swapping in a “sir” at the end.

Josette heard another report from far aft, but couldn’t make it out. Jutes relayed it as, “Foot-long tear in bag eight, sir.”

“Multiple holes in four!” called a masculine, yet strangely high-pitched voice from amidships.

“Is that bad?” Bernat asked.

“The furnace is under bag four,” Josette answered, turning to face aft.

Bernat tapped his chin, as he made a show of thinking about it. “The furnace? You mean that lumpy tangle of metal beneath the boiler? The one with all the bullet holes in it?”

“The same.” Josette said. “Ensign Kember, you have the deck. Ballast coming aft!” She started up the companionway.

Bernat followed her up the companionway and called, “Two ballasts coming aft!”

She thought his voice had a slightly higher pitch inside the keel, than in the open air of the hurricane deck.

She turned and cast an inquiring look at him. “Is it my imagination, or . . .”

“Oh dear,” he said, clearly recognizing the change in pitch of her voice, too. “Does that mean what I think it does?”

“I’m afraid it does. We’re soaking in inflammable air.” She looked to Private Grey, the mechanic’s mate. “Quench the boiler fire. Riggers recheck all fire screens and tarps. Make sure they’re tied securely.” The riggers hardly needed telling. They were already on their way down, and as they arrived they set to inspecting the fabric screens that separated the keel, at the very bottom of the superstructure, from the gas bags above it.

Josette knelt by the boiler and inspected its furnace. The smaller punctures had been patched with clay, but half a dozen holes were too big for that, and so were covered by a protective wire mesh held in place with solder. She peered through a mesh screen. Inside the furnace, the paraffin flame sputtered out, but the fuel nozzle remained red hot, and the forest of tubes that ran up through the furnace to feed water into the steam drum were speckled with burning embers.

And it wasn’t only the furnace that could ignite the ship. Here, a mile in the air aboard a floating powder keg, a dozen possible ignition sources occurred to her, which had all seemed insignificant on the ground. There were the loose flints in the small arms locker, the metal tools used on the steamjack, the rigging lines run through blocks with iron bearings. Even Bernat’s frippery might cause a static spark that was quite sufficient to blow them all to hell—all the more reason for him to start dressing sensibly.

“Don’t take off your jacket,” she said, looking up at him.

Bernat beamed a smile and said, “It’s quite stylish, isn’t it? I didn’t think you’d notice.” He ran his hands across the green velvet and filigreed buttons.

“Don’t ruffle it, either. You could cause a spark.”

As Bernat recognized her meaning, the disappointment rose on his face in proportion to his earlier joy. “I’m sorry to inform you that I can’t help causing sparks,” he said. “It’s in my nature.”

But it was not to be Bernat or his clothing which would ignite the inflammable air. The chain of disaster began where Josette had first suspected it, inside the furnace, where inflammable air was slowly seeping through the mesh. Even as she contemplated the glowing embers, one of them ignited the thin gas inside, the boiler clanged like a bell under the sudden increase in pressure, and the mesh-covered holes flashed with a flame so bright it left purple spots in Josette’s vision. Along the keel, crewmen froze in place and held their breaths, while the riggers ceased their work and swung gently on their safety lines—all waiting to see if the entire ship would follow the example of its furnace.

But the wire mesh did its job. It kept the brief flare-up from penetrating beyond the boiler housing, so that the initial explosion was contained safely inside. But inside the furnace, the air was now swirling with glowing flecks of soot, glowing all the brighter when eddies brought them near the mesh-patched holes. But as bright as these embers burned, they couldn’t pass through the mesh to ignite the gas outside.

“Good God!” Bernat cried. “That nearly stopped my heart. It’s a good thing for you, Dupre, that you don’t have one.”

Josette began to breathe, and was just about to answer his quip, when she saw that one of the mesh patches was damaged. A corner had been bent outward, the solder cracked by the blast. It wasn’t much of a gap, but perhaps it was just enough to let an ember out. She struck out instantly to press her hand over the gap, grimacing at the heat of the furnace blistering her skin. For all that, she was not in time to keep a single glowing wisp of soot from whirling out and dancing past her head.

“Spark!” she cried, as she followed the minute, deadly ember with her eyes. “All hands lie flat!”

Everyone along the keel dropped to the wicker catwalk in a moment, save for Bernat, who only stood there, bewildered. Josette had to grab his safety harness and yank him down with her free hand. She barely got him to the deck, when the entire keel went up in flame.

Minutes before the disaster, Auxiliary Ensign Sabrine Kember stood in the captain’s station at the center of the hurricane deck. It wasn’t the first time she’d stood the deck, aboard Mistral or her previous ship, but she always felt as if she hadn’t yet earned the right to occupy that hallowed spot. She wondered if she shouldn’t stand a pace or two to the left, out of consideration.

Above her, the captain and Lord Hinkal were at it again. They bickered with an odd mix of venomous spite and grudging affection that Kember had previously only seen in elderly married couples. For a while she’d thought there was something to that, but the scuttlebutt said that Lord Hinkal was actually enthralled by the captain’s mother. Kember was skeptical, not only because Lord Hinkal couldn’t possibly be that stupid, but because she was doubtful that Captain Dupre had a mother.

She looked up to check the aneroid altimeter and pneumatic thermoscope, and a twinge of pain shot through her wounded neck. She winced and sucked air through her teeth.

“You okay, sir?” a nearby crewman asked.

Being called “sir” had long since ceased to bother her. Army regulations provided no other form of address for women officers, probably because no one had bothered to update those regulations when they started letting women in. When in civilian company, she was occasionally called “ma’am” or even “Sabrine.” In the latter case, it invariably took her several seconds to remember who that was, for no one had called Kember by her first name in so long that she’d almost forgotten it.

She rubbed her neck around the sore spot and said to the crewman, “I’m fine. It hardly even hurts any—”

“Spark!” In the keel above, that one word stood out from the rest.

“Down!” Kember shouted to the deck crew at the top of her voice, despite the stabbing pain it caused in her throat.

As she dropped flat herself, she saw the explosion’s flash reflected on the deck. The concussion of the blast hit her, thumping into her like she’d just been punched in the back. A wave of heat followed. As it passed, she looked up to see the deck crew alive and well, save for one dazed man who’d had his safety line clipped onto a rope above, and so couldn’t lie flat.

“All hands to fight fire!” she called. As a mere auxiliary ensign, she wasn’t sure she had the authority to call all hands, but the captain and Lieutenant Martel might already be dead, so there was hardly time to worry about it.

She turned and ran to the companionway ladder, passing between the steersmen, who were still getting to their feet after the blast. She dashed up to the keel, taking three stairs at a time.

The smell of charred hair and burnt varnish filled the atmosphere inside the ship. Canvas ports were blown out all along the keel, so that daylight streamed into the usually gloomy space, catching the floating ash as it swirled through the ship. The keel girders were intact, but above them the fabric fire screen between keel and gas bags had been thrown upward in several places, and there were gaping holes in its coverage, most particularly over the boiler. As soon as the next wave of seeping inflammable air reached any of the small secondary fires still smoldering along the keel, there would be nothing to stop the flash from penetrating into the superstructure and igniting the bags.

In frame six, the monkey rigger was already at work in the spiderweb of girders above, trying to repair a gap in the fire barrier. “Never mind that,” Kember called. “There’s no time.” She grabbed a bucket from the gunnery supplies and tossed it up to her. “Fill it from the water ballast and wet the canvas. Wet everything, from the top down.”

Kember continued aft, to frame four, where the captain was lying insensible on her back, her hair smoldering at the ends. “Apologies, sir,” Kember said, as she snatched a fire blanket and unceremoniously wrapped her captain’s head in it.

Fore and aft, the few lucid crewmen were at work on the fires, but here in the engine frames, where the danger was greatest, everyone was either unconscious, flash-blind, or spouting delirious babble. Worse, frame four was absolutely swimming in embers, floating in the air or settled onto the deck. Fragments of canvas smoldered along the envelope, while hot ashes dropped from the safety screen above. And every moment, an invisible cloud of inflammable air was spreading toward the fires.

Even if she brought the entire crew into this frame, she couldn’t quench every possible source of ignition in time. She needed to quench all of it at once, but even if she had a firehose, she wasn’t sure she could do it in time.

Her eyes turned to the boiler, and she knew in a moment what she had to do. She reached up and pulled the manual release on the steam drum’s safety valve. The drum roared as the pressure inside dropped and a geyser of wet steam vented from the side of the keel, out into the open air where it did her no good at all. She took a wrench from the mechanics’ toolbox and took careful aim for the vent pipe, just above the valve. If she damaged the safety valve, half an inch below her target, the pressure inside the drum would fall instantly to zero and the whole thing would explode, killing them all in a slightly different but equally effective manner.

She swung and the wrench connected, knocking the pipe from its valve. A jet of scalding steam whistled out, burning Kember’s arm up to the elbow before she could duck out of its way.

She looked up to see the frame filling with steam—hot, choking, but blessedly moist steam. The burning canvas above sizzled and sputtered, and the smoldering ash along the keel was soon coated with a fuzzy layer of dew.

At her feet, Captain Dupre was just regaining her senses. She sat up and pulled the fire blanket off her head. Something about her face seemed even more dour and angry than usual, and it took Ensign Kember a few seconds to realize that the captain’s eyebrows had been the first casualty of the accident.

“Ensign?” she asked. And then, quite suddenly, she seemed to remember the circumstances that led to her being face-up under a fire blanket. She rose unsteadily. “What’s our status?”

“Fires are out amidships, sir. They’re working on them fore and aft. Not sure about casualties, but I haven’t seen anything serious. Mostly just stunned, sir.”

She looked up to the jet of steam overhead, now tapering off as the boiler pressure fell. “Perhaps not what I would have done, but novel nonetheless.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Lieutenant Martel came forward from his station near the tail. “Ballast coming forward,” he called toward the nose. He saluted the captain. “Fires are out aft, sir, but the riggers are wetting everything to be sure.”

“It’s a steam bath in here,” Lord Hinkal said, as he sat up on the deck. “If there weren’t ladies present, I might strip down to better enjoy it.”

“As if that’s ever stopped you,” the captain said.

And so the bickering began again, just moments after the crisis had passed. Ensign Kember had to use all of her willpower to keep from rolling her eyes.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Robyn Bennis

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