Authors: Daniel Ottalini
Alexandros nodded, taken aback at his selection. After a brief pause, he belatedly remembered his friend. “Where did you get assigned to?”
Gordanus held out his own pin, smiling broadly. Alexandros took it, examining the small avian with its wings spread wide, claws open and ready to strike.
“Vigilant Eagle, just like my dad!” The other boy was obviously excited by the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps, and it left Alexandros with a brief feeling of homesickness. He handed the pin back to Gordanus with a quick thanks, and they gathered up their belongs.
“So, now we assemble into our crews I suppose?” he asked.
“I guess so. Then I hear we’ll actually get to go down to the airfield and board the airships for the first time. This is awesome.” He looked sheepishly at Alexandros for a moment. “You don’t think I’m being overly enthusiastic, do you?” he asked, a note of worry in his voice.
“Don’t worry about it, Gordanus. Seriously. But don’t talk like that to your other crewmembers. They might not be as excited as we are.”
“You know, I’m almost sad that we’ll be competing against each other at some point. I mean, aren’t we supposed to work together in the end? We’ll all be on the same team.”
Alexandros laughed. “That’s what they want you to think. But this is Rome. No one is on any team but their own.”
The other boy nodded seriously. Checking the strap on his bag, Alexandros stepped out into courtyard. Already, groups of newly promoted cadets were assembling, the ramrod straight lines showing years of tough military training. He held out his hand to Gordanus, who took the proffered arm and clasped it, hand to forearm.
Gordanus pulled his friend close and whispered to him, “No matter where you are or what trouble you are in, let me know, and I’ll be there.”
Alexandros was taken aback by his friend’s words.
And here I’ve been thinking that I have been the protector all along.
“I’ll remember it. And good luck!”
Gordanus turned sharply and made his way over to the bannerman holding the Vigilant Eagle
standard. The flag rippled in the slight breeze, the silver eagle seemingly alive on the blue background held aloft by the standard’s T-frame. Gordanus saluted crisply, and then Alexandros turned away.
Good luck, friend
He turned and walked the other direction, down to the very end of the courtyard. The eight training companies were arranged in some unknown order, and the Golden Laurel standard occupied the far end of the arrayed units. The delicate leaves of the laurel crown seemed to pop out of the flag’s deep red background.
He stepped smartly up to the bannerman and commanding officer. Alexandros recalled that the commanding officer was really just an observer, there to record the actions and choices of the crew when facing various situations.
“Senior Cadet Alexandros, reporting for duty.” He saluted the officer regardless, noticing with interest the man’s choice to sport a beard rather than the clean-shaven appearance common to most members of the imperial military.
“Welcome to the Laurel Crown Airship Training Cohort, Cadet Alexandros. I am Senior Trainer Hartus Profias.”
The officer made a mark on the list in front of him with a quill pen. The scratching noise of the pen punctuated the almost unearthly quiet of the courtyard. Alexandros could feel the eyes of many of his new shipmates on his back. Profias looked up at him when he was finished.
“Please take your spot at the rear, cadet,” he stated firmly but without rancor. Alexandros turned and walked to the back of the training cohort. He placed his bag neatly next to his right foot and stood at attention, eyes staring directly forward. After another brief pause, their officer stepped up and began to pace the front row of the cohort.
“I am neither a yeller, nor a screamer,” he began. “But if you screw up and damage yourself, your crewmates, or, gods forbid,
ship, you will soon find yourself joining the support crews as they learn how best to tie an airship to the ground.” His voice was soft but carried, and he had the rapt attention of all the cadets.
“I’m so very happy that you all decided to show up early. This means we can begin early. Today you will find your assigned crew schedules in the galley. Those schedules will not change unless someone… leaves.” There was a pause as he let the remark sink in.
“Although I’m sure the academia
rumor mill is as strong as ever, I will remind you that I am not obligated to pass any of you. I could care less what family you are from or how much wealth and land they have. If I tell you to scrub my decks, you will do it. Is that understood?”
The assembled cadets murmured a response.
“That was pathetic. Try again.”
“YES, SENIOR TRAINER!” the cadets boomed out.
“Better. Now, grab your bags and fall into column formation, two abreast. We’ll be walking to the airship.”
Gathering his things, Alexandros eagerly pushed his way into line. The boys jostled each other, but Alexandros held his ground, securing a space near the center of the column. Profias waited patiently, but stared them down until the movement subsided and the cadets were silent. Giving them a cold glare, Profias waved them forward. Marching in formation, the cadets took the next step forward in their training
His Majesty’s Training Ship Imperio
was a very long way from the elegant and sleek air warship that was on the recruitment poster, Alexandros decided.
No, it is most decidedly the most un-propaganda worthy airship I’ve ever seen
. He remembered seeing it for the first time.
And I kept wanting to ask, “That’s it?”
He stood in the engine room of the
, focusing intently as the engineer explained the basic principles behind the large machine that occupied half the room.
“So, when running this beauty here, you must make sure the pressure gauges never cross into the orange or red. That could destroy the engine itself, start a fire, burst the boiler, or tear the ship apart. All of which are very, very bad.”
Alexandros nodded weakly. He had no real talent at machinery and had only learned the bare minimum necessary to pass certain courses and advance to this level.
The engineer continued. “You put the coal into this small opening using the shovel. The fire will create steam, which we use to run our propellers and power the ship. To augment this, we use a bit of the black liquid. This gives us spurts of power and will eventually surpass coal as the main source of fuel, once we can get enough of a production process going.”
As the topic of the conversation began to move along a different tangent, Alexandros examined the engine. The heart of the airship was mostly dark iron in color, the deep black and gray tones punctuated by the bright silver or copper of various grills and latches. Off to one side, connected by thick lengths of wire and tubes, sat a control panel. All the gauges, levers, and knobs that monitored and controlled the metallic beast were controlled from this station. In addition, a speaking tube descended from the ceiling like some strange cylindrical stalactite.
“And thus, this station can be run by just two men. However, a crew of four or five is necessary to avoid secondary problems and stupid errors,” the engineer finished.
Alexandros looked up at this abrupt end to the lesson, and a boy next to him raised his hand.
His voice was slightly squeaky, betraying his recent adolescence. “Chief Mekanic, sir. What if we have ideas to improve the engine?”
The man laughed.
“You’re not to be fiddling with this here machine, Cadet Tuderius. It is a delicate piece of machinery that I am
to all of you to return to me in one piece. One
piece that is.” He glanced at Tuderius. “One working, complete, unmodified, engine,” he amended quickly.
Seeing no further questions, the chief mekanic assigned the small work group to their positions. Alexandros was inwardly relieved at being handed a shovel and told to scoop and dump the coal into the engine. Manning the shovels with him, Cadets Oclai Tuderius and Ignatius Scarus ensured the engine was constantly fed. A cadet that Alexandros had never talked to before, Regorus Armini, hunched over the control panel, his large form shaking slightly. Nerves or terror? Things were not looking up.
Finally, the last boy stood next to the speaking tube, head nearly jammed into the funnel opening. Cadet Danis Caderie closed his eyes, waiting for the word from the bridge team that they were ready to launch. Behind them all stood Chief Mekanic Atalis Hendras, watching their movements with his spectacle-rimmed eyes.
Alexandros shifted uncomfortably on his feet. He leaned on his shovel while Tuderis prodded the coal chute with his instrument. Time seemed to stretch onward like a slow-moving river. Had five minutes passed? Ten? Alexandros was about to ask their instructor what time it was when a sudden squawk from the speaking tube interrupted him. Caderie tried to speak, coughed once, then passed the message.
“Bridge says quarter speed ahead.”
Alexandros felt a lurch beneath them as the vessel began to rise slightly. Glad to finally have something to do, he turned to collect a shovelful of coal, but only succeeded in knocking the coal out of Tuderis’s shovel. They both cursed, aware of the calculating eyes of Mekanic Hendras on their movements. Trying again, this time the three trainees succeeded in creating a repetitive process. Tuderis would grab a shovelful of coal, and then switch with Alexandros, who deposited his coal into the burner. Scarus would monitor the grate and switch off with one of the other two boys every few minutes. Each man would get a break from slinging coal while keeping the routine manageable.
Seemingly satisfied at their quick improvisation, Hendras instead focused his attention on Armini at the controls. From what little he saw during his breaks and the scant moments spent facing that direction, Alexandros could tell that Hendras was not impressed. Finally, Hendras brusquely called out.
“Cadet Alexandros, switch with Cadet Armini. Cadet Tuderis, switch with Cadet Caderie.” Quickly, the cadets rotated positions, with Tuderis getting to the speaking tube just in time.
“Bridge requests we go to full speed,” he stated nervously. Just getting his bearings, Alexandros eyed the full panoply of controls. He located the steam pressure valves, neatly labeled by someone with a better sense of handwriting than himself. He also identified the throttle and relief controls. He edged the throttle up to half-speed, the whine of the steam turbine audibly increasing. He listened carefully to the movements of the coal handlers behind him, wanting to ensure the engine had the proper amount of fuel before increasing the speed to full.
“What are you waiting for, cadet? The bridge demands full speed.”
The chief mekanic was obviously getting impatient with the apparent lack of effort in moving the ship to full speed. Alexandros ignored him, feeling the sweat dripping down his back. Was it the heat in the room or the nerves from ignoring a senior officer? Alexandros shot a hasty look at Tuderis. The cadet nodded at him, and Alexandros delicately pushed the well-worn copper throttle ahead until the shining arrow pointed to maximum.
The engine room was much louder now, and regular conversation was impossible. Alexandros felt the ship’s speed increasing until it practically hummed through the air. Peeking out through the single square porthole provided to them, Alexandros was able to see the clouds moving by at a fast clip. Without that indication, no one would have known how fast the airship was going, despite the steady roar and vibration of the engine.
After another few minutes with Alexandros monitoring the gauges carefully, the cadets shifted.
Barring any complete disaster, I think we’ll get out of this room in one piece!
he thought as he stood at the speaking tube.
“Dead stop, all hands to battle stations,” came the order just a minute later.
With the order, both the speaker tube man and one of the coal men were pulled off their tasks. As Alexandros was currently working the speaker tube position, he had to leave the room and attend to his battle station, Ignatius Scarus following in his wake.
Why do I feel like they are trying to make us break something?
The boys milled around in the passageway for a moment, trying to get their bearings. Alexandros grabbed a pair of heavy leather combat jackets. The jackets had small metal plates sewn into the inside of them on the front and back, providing some protection from enemy fire. He tossed one to Scarus.
“Our position is aft, at the rear
ballista,” Scarus recalled, pointing to a sign directing them toward the stern. They ran down the metallic-grated hallway, stepping through bulkheads and pulling on their tough battle gear.
They were the last ones to their post
. Already, the cadet in charge of the weapon position had cleared the area for combat. Looking like a huge crossbow, the ballista fired rocks or small exploding projectiles instead of the quarrels or bolts that the scorpions used. Both mid-sized armaments were present on the ship, although there were just ten heavy weapons overall: four along each side of the ship, one in the forward bow compartment, and their own at the stern.
“For a training ship, she’s pretty heavily armed. Strong enough to give any pirate or bandit captain a pause before daring to attack,” Senior Trainer Profias had boasted on his initial tour of the ship with the cadets.
I hope this is a drill; I’d hate to run into something that
be willing to attack,
Alexandros thought and took his position in the gunner’s stool. He angled the weapon properly, ensuring that the balance felt right in his hands. The weapon had a wide field of fire, being at the rearmost part of the vessel. He calmly scanned his ballista left to right, only to pause as another cadet carefully loaded a solid metal sphere into the holder.
“Loaded!” he called out as he secured the heavy metal ball.
Alexandros carefully pulled the loading lever, allowing the launcher to be winched back. Two cadets turned the windlass holding the crank. One, two, three turns and a loud click told everyone the weapon was ready to fire.
“Sir, ballista ready to fire!” Alexandros called out to the acting artillery captain, a cadet by the name of Militanus. The dark-skinned pupil, hailing from the southern part of the empire, nodded quietly, ear pressed against the speaking tube leading to the deck.
The boys waited patiently for a while, eyes scanning the sky. Far below them, Alexandros could see green fields and forests sliding by, as though a child were pulling her blanket from atop a bed.
Eventually, Militanus stood and rang a small bell.
“Drill is over, stow the weapon and return to your posts.”
The crew chattered as they unloaded the weapon, carefully returning their unused ammunition and releasing the tension in the bound coils that provided the weapon’s power. Alexandros secured the ballista mount and exited the room, followed closely by Cadet Tuderis.