June 30, 1908 AD
It was morning over the boreal forests of central Siberia, and thewilderness had awakened, just as it had since time immemorial, to the rustling of branches, the songs of birds and the buzzing of insects. Deep beneath the ground inside a bunker of concrete and steel, Maxim Rykov sat in his small, Spartan ofﬁce and poured over a pile of notes and charts with the vigor of a fanatic. He had not slept the night before, such was the signiﬁcance of his work, and now his bleary eyes were kept open only by the knowledge that today would be the day that he would deliver Russia from her enemies.
There was a noise at the door, and Rykov looked up to see his fresh-faced aide, Lieutenant Pavlov, watching him.
“What is it, Alexi?” he asked.
“It’s time, sir,” Pavlov said. “The machine is ready.”
Rykov’s face lit up. He leapt to his feet, knocking aside his chair.
“Then we’ve no time to lose!” he cried, rushing to the door.
“Come, Alexi, it is time to change the world!”
* * * *
They hurried into the belly of the bunker, through concrete tunnels lined with pipes and wires. At every turn, soldiers and engineers going about their business passed them and gave the two ofﬁcers salutes that they had no time to return. At length, Rykov arrived at the heart of his creation, a vast engine room ﬁ lled with boilers and generators, thunderous machinery and working men. The air was heavy with steam and smoke and an all-pervasive heat that made him sweat beneath his uniform the instant he crossed the threshold. Pavlov followed, his breath quickening.
“I want pressure at full!” Rykov shouted to the engineers. “Keep those furnaces going!”
He walked to the center of the chamber, where there stood a massive column of metal covered in belts, wires, and gears. All of the pipes and wires in the engine room converged on this single machine, and the engine’s many dials shook violently as the pressure behind them threatened to break them into pieces.
“Is the program loaded?” Rykov demanded.
“Yes, sir,” Pavlov said.
Rykov drew a small punch card from the tunic of his uniform and studied it, his face distorted by a strange half-smile. The card had been made from a piece of tempered steel, its holes cut with the most advanced precision machinery to ensure clean and perfect circles.
“Smile, Alexi,” he said, placing his hand on Pavlov’s shoulder. “Today is the start of a new age.” He swept a hand through his sweat-matted hair. “Fetch me the megaphone. I would like to address the men.”
“Of course, sir.”
When Pavlov had done as instructed, Rykov stepped to the front of the balcony and raised the megaphone. His voice echoed throughout the engine room, drawing his troops to him like a priest calling his congregation. As he spoke, the noise of the room seemed to fade away into the background.
“Soldiers! Brothers! Sons of Mother Russia! Today is a great day! Today is the day when all the world shall be remade by our hands!”
There was a cheer from the crowd, but Rykov waved them into silence.
“We have all toiled so very long and so very hard for this great goal,” he continued. “Some of you have worked for these many months constructing this great engine of Russia’s destiny. Others of you have served alongside me in pursuit of this goal since its ﬁrst inception years ago. But all of you can hold yourselves proud that what you are doing is for the greatness, the glory, and the preservation of our Empire!”
Rykov’s tone became more serious.
“I cannot stress too greatly the urgency of our situation and the necessity of our cause. Russia’s enemies are many, and they will stop at nothing to destroy our beloved empire. In Crimea, the British and the French allied with the godless Turks for no cause greater than to oppose the rightful will of the Tsar. It was ordained that Russia should control all of Asia, the great frontier to our east, and yet the British have stalked us at every turn in their so-called ‘Great Game.’ Now, in desperation, the French turn to us to free them from their isolation, to use us as a weapon against Germany! Now, the hated British seek to lure us into complacency, so that they and their Japanese dogs can tear the Empire into pieces!”
Rykov leaned forward over the balcony, the light of the furnace ﬁres casting his face in orange and crimson.
“Enough, I say!” he cried. A cheer echoed from the crowd. “No longer shall mongrels like the British bite at our heels! No longer shall the craven Austrians and Turks lord over proud Slavs and noble Christians! No longer shall Japan seek to bar our rightful possession of East Asia! With this machine, brothers, we shall harness the very power of the Earth itself, and with the ﬁery might of gods, we shall shatter our enemies and lay waste to their cities! I swear to you that before this day is out, London and Paris, Berlin and Vienna, Tokyo and Peking will all burn! We shall defend Church and Tsar whatever the cost our foes must pay!”
Another great cheer rose from the soldiers and engineers, but it was to be short-lived. As Rykov stood, arm outstretched as if to take the very future within his grasp, the air became heavy as if a storm was about to break, and the stench of ozone rose to assail the noses of the men. A torrent of sparks erupted from the generators, followed by bursts of electrical discharge. The pressure gauges went mad under the strain, and pipes began to burst as steam struggled to vent between the joins.
Though almost overcome with panic, the engineers rushed to their stations and began struggling with the machinery. Under the increased pressure, the belts and ﬂywheels thundered louder than ever, drowning out the screams that arose when clouds of boiling vapor erupted around the men. The bunker shook as if rocked by the blows of heavy artillery.
Rykov bounded down from the balcony and grabbed one of the engineers by the arm.
“What happened?” he demanded.
“Some sort of electrical surge!” the engineer cried. “It is running along the metal supports in the walls, and the boiler pressure has doubled without any increased heat. I do not understand it!”
Pavlov grabbed his commander’s arm. “Major, we must give the order to evacuate! The engines could explode at any moment! If we don’t leave now, we could be boiled alive!”
The chamber shook again.
“Good God!” Pavlov cried. “I think we’re sinking into the ground!”
“I will not give up when we are so close!” Rykov rushed for the central machine. “We must activate the machine now, before it is too late!”
“Activate it?” Pavlov gasped. He rushed forward and tried to bar Rykov’s way. “If the machine is turned on now, there’s no way of knowing what it might do! There’s too much pressure and electricity for it to handle!”
“Out of my way, Alexi!” Rykov shouted.
Pavlov pressed his back against the machine’s control panel, blocking Rykov’s access to it.
“You’ll kill us all!” he cried.
There was a dreadful ﬁre in Rykov’s eyes as he drew his revolver and leveled it at Pavlov.
“I will kill any man who stands between me and Russia’s destiny. Even you, Alexi.”
“No . . .” Pavlov said.
Rykov ﬁred without hesitation.
The gunshot was scarcely heard above the noise of the engines, and none of the soldiers showed any sign of noticing. By then they were all too intent upon their own survival, some struggling to relieve the pressure of the boilers, others ﬂeeing for their lives, certain that doom had come.
Rykov kicked Pavlov’s body aside and raised the command card. He shoved it into its slot.
A cascade of sparks showered down around him and lightning arced across the room. Rykov placed his hand on the machine’s control switch. A hymn to glory pounded with the blood in his ears.
“Today is the day we change the world!” he cried and threw the switch.
2120 AD (211 Post Upheaval)
The Badlands, western fringe of the Known World
Two hundred years later and several thousand miles away from the shattered remains of Tunguska, another day dawned just as pleasantly. In the rocky and rubble-strewn Badlands, birds sang in the early light, and then took to wing as the sounds of gunﬁre broke the stillness of the morning sky.
On the bridge of the merchant airship Fortuna, Captain Adams struggled to keep from panicking as his ship ﬂed at full steam with a ﬂotilla of pirates trailing close behind it. Adams looked out of a nearby window as the Fortuna made an evasive turn. He saw three light airships packed down with black market artillery spread out in a line that formed the core of the pursuing gang. The immediate danger, however, came from a wing of biplanes of mixed models and designs that crisscrossed the Fortuna, raking it with machine gun ﬁre.
“Captain, they’re gaining on us!” the navigator, Wilcox, cried from the other side of the narrow bridge. “We can’t outrun them much longer!”
Adams rubbed his mouth. “We have to try. If we can make it to Commonwealth airspace, they’ll have to break off.”
More gunﬁre sounded from outside, and a few moments later Adams watched as a man in a warm leather jumpsuit—one of the machine gunners positioned on the top of the Fortuna’s envelope—tumbled down past the window and vanished into the clouds below them.
“Our machine guns are gone!” cried the communications ofﬁcer.
Wilcox paled. “We’re defenseless!”
“Pull yourselves together, boys!” Adams said. “Batista, keep on
that aethercaster. Call for help until you can’t call anymore.”
“Yes, sir!” the communications ofﬁ cer replied. He turned back to the aethercast transmitter and began broadcasting on all available frequencies. “Mayday, mayday. Merchant ship Fortuna under attack from pirates. Taking heavy ﬁre. Requesting any assistance. Coordinates as follows—”
Adams drew his revolver and held it aloft. “You’re all acting like a lot of sissies from out east, and I won’t have it on my ship! We live with the threat of piracy hanging over our heads every day, and do we hide at home in fear?”
“Hell no!” someone shouted from the other side of the bridge.“Damn right!” Adams said. “We’re Badlanders, born and bred to take risks that ‘civilized’ folks can’t stomach! You all knew this day might come. What the Hell are you carrying guns for if not for this?”
He ﬁxed every man on the bridge with a stern glare. He was met with silence.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “Now get back to your stations, do your jobs, and we might make it out of this alive!”
The ﬁrst ofﬁcer, James Peck, burst into the bridge from the top deck. He held one arm and blood dripped from the end of his sleeve. He stumbled over to Adams and grabbed his captain by the shoulder.
“They’ve punctured the gas cells!” he said.
“Which ones?” Adams demanded.
“All of them! And most of the punctures are in the upper quarter! We’re venting hydrogen!”
“Can you patch the blasted things?” Adams asked.
Peck wiped sweat from his forehead, leaving a trail of blood in his hair. “The men are trying, but it’s next to suicide with those ﬁghters shooting at us. We’re going down, Cap’n, and there’s nothing we can about it.”
“Good, God,” Adams said.
The airship pitched in the wind, and Adams stumbled against a nearby support.
“We’re ﬁnished,” Peck growled. “We’ll never make Kilkala in time.”
“God damn it,” Adams said, “but I think you’re right.”
Peck snapped his head toward Adams. “We never should have given the old man passage. He’s the one they’re after, you know! I warned you when we left port at Turtle Island!”
Adams said, “His price was too good to turn down. It’s too late now, at any rate.”
He watched as the Fortuna began to sink through the clouds.
Fragments of ﬂ oating rock ﬂ ew past them, some narrowly missing the airship, others striking and rebounding off the metal hull or fabric envelope. One of the region’s many smaller eyots appeared from beneath a cloud directly in the falling Fortuna’s path, and Adams knew they were going to crash onto it.
He grabbed a nearby voicepipe. “All hands, brace for impact!”
Turning back to the window, he saw the ground rushing toward them. A tree struck the bottom of the Fortuna, rocking the ship and making it pitch sideways. The bridge crew grabbed onto any hand-holds they could ﬁnd, and Adams held onto a handle next to the window with one hand. With the other, he supported his wounded ﬁrst ofﬁcer.
The impact was softer than he had expected. Only two men were knocked from their feet; the rest were merely jostled. Releasing Peck, Adams rushed out onto the deck. What was the damage?
The airship had landed at a slight angle, and its envelope was offset just enough for him to make out the sky. Above, pirate ﬁghters swept around for another pass. They ﬁred a few more bursts into the airship, but there was little that gunﬁre could do now that it had not already done. Then one of the pirate airships eclipsed the sun, descending toward the eyot. They meant to land.
“Hell’s bells!” Adams said.
Peck joined him.
Adams said, “Open the arms locker. Distribute weapons to the crew.”
“We’re ﬁnished anyway,” Peck said, but he did as instructed.
As the pirate ship landed, its crew dropped grappling anchors. The moment their ship stabilized, dozens of pirates burst from cover, rushing down a metal walkway and sliding down ropes to the ground.
Adams dashed back to the bridge. “We’ll make a stand here,” he said. “Wilcox, Burns, get the rest of the men and secure the engine room and the catwalks inside the envelope. The rest of you, get this bridge locked down!”
“What about the crew quarters?” asked Wilcox. “If the pirates get in there—”
Peck grabbed Wilcox and shook him. “Get some sense into your head! If they steal the contents of our lockers, it’ll be a small price to pay so long as we get out of here alive!”
“Yes, sir!” He nodded to Burns, and the two dashed out. The communications ofﬁcer dogged the door shut behind them.
When Wilcox and Burns had gone, Adams rejoined Peck. “Inspiring words, James. I thought you’d written us off as done for.”
“We are done for,” Peck said, “but the last thing we need is a panic. I may be a pessimist, but I’m not stupid.”
Adams looked out the window. The pirates were a motley lot: dirty and unshaven, dressed in patched and worn garments stolen or taken from the dead. They carried an assortment of riﬂes, pistols, axes, and swords. Many had their oily hair cut short or tied into long braids to protect it from the wind; others wore knit caps pulled tightly over their heads. All were haggard and had a barbarous look in their eyes.
Adams selected a shotgun from the arms locker, then crouched by one of the bridge windows and pushed it open. The remaining bridge crew followed his lead. As the pirates neared, he shouldered his weapon.
“Take aim!” He drew a bead on a burly man with an axe in one
hand and a pistol in the other. “Fire at will!”
Bullets and shot poured into the pirate mob, which let out a startled cry and surged forward with even greater vigor. A few pirates fell; others returned ﬁ re, while the rest swarmed onto the deck to loot less well-defended portions of the airship. Two men with sledgehammers darted just at the edge of the window’s ﬁeld of view, and a few moments later the thunderous pounding of steel on steel echoed from the bridge door. The bridge crew shuddered as one, knowing that they would soon be overrun, but they kept up
their ﬁre at the windows.
All the while, the sounds of aeroplanes circling overhead could be heard over the noise of gunﬁre. Peck looked upward quickly and scowled.
“Those blasted aeroplanes,” Adams said, sharing the ﬁrst ofﬁcer’s expression. “They’ll be the death of us.”
“You’re right about that,” Peck told him. “Even if we somehow ﬁght off these pirates, we’ll be gunned down by the rest of the ﬂotilla before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle.’”
“At least they’ll kill us fast and clean,” Adams said.
“You ﬁnd the silver lining in everything.”
Bullets ricocheted off the metal of the bridge’s hull. One or two even punched through the metal, killing a member of the crew. Adams and his men continued to ﬁre out of the windows, but the pirates were no fools. They kept away from the windows’ sight angles and focused their attentions on breaking down the door. Adams heard machine gun ﬁre echoing from somewhere outside, but he was too occupied by the threat of death to pay it much attention. His ﬁrst indication that something had changed was when the
burning hulk of a pirate biplane crashed against the ground some dozen feet from the window. Adams jumped in surprise and stared in confusion at the wreckage. As he watched, another biplane fell to the ground further away, and Adams strained his eyes to make out what was happening. He jumped in fright as a third biplane tumbled against the eyot, shattered its wheels and wings, and barreled aﬂ ame toward the Fortuna. It stopped barely ﬁve feet from the bridge window and sat there, a funeral pyre for its pilot.
The bridge door came down with a terrible clang, and Adams jerked his gaze toward it. In the doorway stood the two pirates holding sledgehammers. Behind them stood more of the mob, weapons brandished and ready to turn the narrow conﬁnes of the bridge into an abattoir.
The closest pirate hefted his sledgehammer and took a single step toward the doorway, eyes ﬁ xed on Adams. A moment later, a spray of gunﬁre ripped into him and ﬂung him onto the deck in a bloody heap. More bullets rained down upon the pirate mob from the side, and they were suddenly struck by panic. Those who survived dropped to the ground or crawled for cover, some even using their dead and dying comrades to shield themselves. Riﬂes and pistols went off, peppering the unseen enemy, who returned ﬁre in another lengthy burst.
Gripping his shotgun, Adams burst out of the door and ﬁred off both barrels into the cluster of men closest to the bridge door. Two were knocked to the ground. The third turned his eyes toward Adams and raised his cutlass with a howl. Adams felt the adrenaline take him, and he struck the pirate with the butt of the shotgun over and over again until the attacker stopped moving. He leaned heavily against the bridge room’s outer wall, nausea and shudders gripping his body.
In the sky above, he saw aeroplanes twisting about in tight spirals and dives, dogﬁghting with all the viciousness of wild beasts. The pirates were still there, now ﬁ ghting desperately against a squadron of sleek monoplane ﬁghters that darted in and out of their enemy’s ranks, trading ﬁre with the biplanes and even engaging the pirate airships with almost suicidal daring. The monoplanes looked like a vision of the future, with metal bodies rather than the canvas and wood of the pirates. Their cockpits were enclosed in glass canopies to protect their pilots from the tremendous winds their high-speed ﬂight produced. It was little wonder that they seemed to outmaneuver the pirate ﬁghters at every turn.
“Commonwealth Kestrels . . .” Adams mumbled to himself. “Thank God!”
Two of the Kestrels had broken away from the rest of the squadron to see to the Fortuna’s relief. Having whittled down the pirates on deck, they now were attending to the pirate airship on the eyot. A barrage of incendiary rounds soon had the pirates’ envelope aﬂame. After a couple more passes for good measure, the two monoplanes dove toward the ground and came in to land a short distance from the Fortuna.
Adams watched as the pilot of the lead ﬁghter shoved open the plane’s canopy and stood, one foot up on the cockpit’s side as shetook in the situation on the ground. She wore a leather ﬂight suit and gloves, with a revolver in a holster strapped at the top of her
boot. She pulled off her ﬂ ying helmet, releasing a bundle of golden hair that ﬂ uttered magniﬁcently in the breeze.
Fixing her eyes on the Fortuna, the pilot drew her revolver and jumped down from the plane. She was quickly joined by her wingman, a swarthy woman with short dark hair. The two of them hurried to the Fortuna’s side and climbed up onto the deck, keeping their pistols at the ready. They were met by a token force of surviving pirates who, now on the verge of panic, were quickly dispatched in a blaze of gunﬁre.
Adams rushed to meet the pilots, holding his shotgun by the barrel to show that he meant no harm. “Thank God you’ve come!” he exclaimed. “You’re just in time.”
The blond woman gave Adams a pat on the shoulder. Her companion kept her aim on the open deck and the bodies that covered it.
“I’m Wing Commander Steele of the Commonwealth Air Force,” the blond said. “This is Flight Lieutenant Nadir. We caught your distress call and thought you might need a hand. Good for you we were in the area.”
“Good for us indeed! We’d be dead if it weren’t for you.”
Steele gave a sardonic smile. “Better death than slavery, right?”
She snapped open her revolver and began reloading it with bullets held in a pocket on the chest of her ﬂight suit. Adams opened the breech of his shotgun and reloaded as well.
“What’s the status of the ship?” Nadir asked over her shoulder.
“My men have the bridge and engine room locked down. Thanks to you, most of the pirates who came aboard are dead, but some of them headed down into the crew quarters below decks.”
“Any of your people still down there?” Steele asked.
Adams wiped his brow. “None of the crew. Just the old man. He refused to leave his berth when I gave the order.”
“We took on a passenger at our last port of call. He was on the run from somebody.”
“Clearly they found him,” Nadir said.
“Clearly,” Steele agreed. “Taking on a stranger on the run in the Badlands? You should know better.”
“I know,” Adams said, “but we needed the money.”
Steele looked at Nadir. “There might still be a chance to save him.”
“Might,” Nadir said.
Steele turned to Adams. “Stay here. We’ll get him.”
Blood in the Skies © G.D. Falksen