Fiction Page 5
THE AIRSHIP TECHNATA
Lawrence R. Dagstine
The Technata. More than just a ship…
A state of grace.
Commodore Williams watched as the final rank of officers moved out. It gave him a slight twinge, but only a slight one. "A fine sight," he muttered to the station general, who stood beside him on the dock ramparts on what was to be a fine day. It was nearly sunup, when rosy-faced sailors began hurrying past the shoreline to the main boardwalk. Each of them carried a large duffel bag flung over their shoulders, containing a change of uniform and perhaps a few mementos from home. The commodore wondered if he should charge admission to the spectators, who were gathered around like small ants on a hill. He was glancing down at his feet when he came up with the idea. A shiny silver dollar was lying between his boots. He picked it up and stuffed it in his navy peacoat pocket. It wasn't every day that a man found a coin beneath his feet. It was a sign of good luck, and luck was the one thing he needed most.
From the dock, where many onlookers stood, the first stretch of trail was quite respectable-looking, but as it approached the ship, it had become little more than a cowpath-sized walkway, with a narrow, wooden bridge. The trail connected the beach with the rest of the station, but began at that dock. In the summer, the commodore would bring his kids down there. The area was quite safe, seeing that the base tore down the radar launch site after the last war. All that remained was the shoreline, and the shore was swarming with undetected mines. Now and then, particularly after a storm, a few would explode. The explosions could be heard from over a dozen miles away.
But there wasn't time to go on thinking about the problem with the mines along the shoreline. The men had a long journey ahead of them, and Williams… Well, he would have plenty of time to think and strategize and reminisce once they set sail.
The months ahead were expected to be harsh. The return trip was completely military-financed, and the voyage was a mysterious rendezvous with fate deep in the poles of the bitter Arctic. The mission itself--which for so long during the development had been hush-hush--was top secret.
Before attempting to board, Williams pulled forward his bullhorn and addressed the entire crew with a bon voyage speech that would have inspired almost any naval outfit. "This may come as a surprise to you," he started off solemnly, which was unusual for a man who was constantly asinine toward others, "but I've succeeded. I've turned ordinary men into oceanic gods. I'm proud of each and every one of you. I'm proud…not because you've decided to enlist in the return trip, but because you want to become a part of naval history. The new and improved Technata is that history. She used to be the best resistance by sea, but now she has been converted into the ultimate attack vessel by air. With the press of a few buttons and the pull of a few levers, and, of course, an exceptional crew, this barge can become a fully operational aircraft. Finally, this ship is proof that our technology is one step ahead of the Japanese. Anything is possible, and I am glad you are all here to explore the possibilities with me." The station general passed him a bottle of champagne and he slammed it against the bow, christening his pride and joy. "In the name of progress!"
The crew raised their arms and cheered on.
Williams was the last to make his way down the wooden path, climbing the ship's boarding ramp in a leisurely fashion. He waved to some of the observers until he reached the top, when he instantly headed for the outside of the captain's deck and leaned on his favorite lookout spot, a splintery old railing. A seagull swooped down and nested beside him. It had part of one toe missing but the commodore was grateful for its friendliness. "So, you've decided to join me," he said to the filthy-looking bird. "I just wish I had some bread, friend. You look starved."
A high-pitched steam sound signifying "lift-off" scared the animal off, but it eventu- ally came back. The blue ship, high and mighty above the water, swam steadily away from the dock. Within minutes they were well out to sea. Together the commodore and his feathered friend examined the morning. The mountains were purple cutouts pasted on a pale gray sky, the water a rippleless sheet of foil reflecting a single blooming star. "I should be retired by now," he muttered to the bird. "I don't know why I stay aboard, especially when the winters are as cold as this. I'm no young sailor. My kids are teenagers, and I'm pushing sixty." He thought long and hard. "It must be the thrill, and that gives me a sense of security. Or perhaps I'm a glory seeker."
Oddly, the seagull grinned. It was as if the bird knew what he was talking about. It was a restless traveler itself, an optimistic scavenger of the seven seas.
But Williams was no pirate. Far from it. That was the seagull's game.
The seagull flapped its wings and went its way. Williams was alone once again. He blew into his frosty hands for warmth, but settled for the faint beams of sunrise. During the warmer months at sea, weather was a topic passed around with the chewing tobacco and the salted peanuts, and it wasn't expected to hang around much past the spring showers. Sure there were fierce storms and unexpected precipitation, but nothing to get jumpy about. Not for the senior officers anyway, who were used to it. But in the winter, weather was as important as food and shelter. It sometimes meant the difference between life and death.
In the twenty years Williams had commanded the Technata (and the central fleet) he had experienced the most rain, the most snow, the coldest air, the highest and lowest tides, the most horrible winds, and the most tedious winters. But, he had also come to expect, in times of great emergency, cooperation from the elements. It had saved his neck twice when he least suspected it, especially out in the Poles, where giant icebergs were known to float aimlessly, but with a destructive purpose.
The captain of the vessel came upstairs at that moment. "Captain T.J. Stryker reporting for duty, sir," the second-in-command saluted. His chiseled face and sparkling blue eyes gave off the impression of an intelligent seafarer. "Officer Lane is preparing your tea. Chamomile, just as you like it. He's also ordered two lackeys to prepare fresh linens for your quarters, and nautical arrangements have been left up to one of our most experienced maritime officers, Garcia."
Williams raised his eyes in surprise. "Stryker?" he said. The captain had been with him on the last trip. "What are you doing here? I heard you were given a six-month leave?"
"Five was enough for me," said the captain truthfully. "Besides, I heard from the war office that you were going to lead the return trip. I had to come. But perhaps this time you'll tell me what we're searching for. You have to agree, a 300 million dollar reconstruction of the Technata does raise a few questions."
Williams turned his head away, not necessarily ignoring him but trying to avoid ex- planations so early in the trip. "The costly make over shouldn't concern you, Mr Stryker. Everything is paid for. No complaints from Congress. Be thankful of that. And may I remind you that you shouldn't worry yourself with what we're searching for, but instead why."
"You don't have to remind me of anything," said Stryker, slightly insulted. "If some- thing happens to you I have to lead this troop. Maybe you've forgotten, but I'm your second-in-command. If anyone deserves a full analysis report and detailed planning of the expedition, it's me." Which was true, seeing that the commodore was holding back information. And, in case of an emergency, it was the captain who went down with the ship. Also, it was unusual that the commodore was being so secretive this time around. It was evident that there was too much tension and too much caution regarding the welfare of the mission and the upgrade to the ship.
But in the end, Williams was opposed to the captain's (and long time friend) naval philosophy. "If you're so worried then," he told him, "why don't you concentrate on the helm? Or maybe the generators. Perhaps you'll be more at ease."
Realistically, Williams had not meant to be so smug and sarcastic. It was just that the failure of two previous ventures had gotten to him. "I want to see the blueprints of the titanium propellers and air-refueling tanks," he kept on, but a little calmer. "In the event we run into a glacier pond I want to make sure this barge is ready for flight. These sailors will become pilots when they least expect it."
"Why do I have the feeling this is more than just a military exploration?" the captain muttered, shaking his head. "Just between us, Jessup: the plans are always on hand. The war office requires it. What I don't understand is why we're returning to the North Pole. We're not at war, and according to Navy Article 103-89, this simply cannot be a military expedition. Yet with your consent, the navy is paying for it. Tell me, just what are we after?"
Williams looked down at his feet, took in a deep breath of air and sighed. He knew he couldn't keep it a secret forever. "We're on a hunt," he replied briefly.
Stryker was confused. "A hunt?"
"Yes, a hunt."
"What sort of hunt?"
"We're hunting a portal," Williams said. Once again, he took in a deep breath of the fresh morning air and almost wickedly smiled. At the same time, not too far out into the Atlantic, the dawn was attempting to paint the skies, but in a half-hearted fashion. A passing shower looked possible for later, and that always caused trouble for the commodore's knee; most of the time he walked with a limp. "I can see the incredulous look in your eyes," he continued. "We're searching for a portal to another time, another place...maybe even another dimension. Do you believe that parallel worlds exist?"
Stryker thew him a freakish glance from across the deck. "You're kidding, right?" It seemed like he wasn't. "I think you've been in the service too long, Jessup. I mean, portals are one thing, but parallel worlds?"
"Why, do you find that hard to digest?"
"Not as much as the expensive reconstruction did, but--yes!"
"Well, then let me finish," Williams said. "I know it sounds improbable, but on the trip before the last, when we were ice mining and slammed into that giant iceberg, something extraordinary happened…"
"Extraordinary?" Once again, Stryker gave him a confused look.
"Yes, a beaming tunnel of light. No, wait a minute…actually some sort of gateway appeared, and we almost sailed through it in slow motion. I swear Stryker, I do not jest. The only joke here is time. Time was playing with us. I was the only one on the poop deck when it happened. According to my watch that collision lasted only half-a-minute, yet after we passed through the light, all the sailors' watches and all the clocks on board were running ten minutes fast."
As they stood at the bow of the ship, Stryker observed quietly, "You don't seem to be terribly popular here, which I find rather odd. You're the commodore, and might be stepping up to station general when we get back, yet you continue to boast about this silly portal business. I guess it can't be a smart career move to antagonize you."
Williams smiled. "No one said life at sea would be easy."
"Well, now that you mention it, I do remember the incident, but vaguely. It did feel quite strange. What I do recall now was this momentary loss of awareness. I was overseeing the helm when I suddenly felt frozen."
"As well as everyone else around you," added Williams.
"Yes," Stryker said, "and it didn't matter that the ship was out of control. Nothing mattered. I was free of this body." He stopped short before starting again. "Was it really a ten minute collision?"
"But it didn't feel that way. Nobody loses track of that much time."
The commodore put his elbow on the splintery old railing and set his eyes at sea. "Except us," he said in a hoarse whisper.
"Surely there are answers," Stryker said in a cast-about fashion.
"Many, but the real answer probably won't come without a detailed explanation us- ing this ship's technology [which explained the 300 million dollar upgrade], and, if ne- cessary, human intelligence. We have to find the portal first, and that's tricky. A lot of the Arctic is uncharted. We don't know exactly where it is, but we need to drop anchor at the place where it most likely will have existed, or where evidence of it has most likely been preserved."
"Well, I'll be glad when this nonsense is all over," said Stryker frankly. "When I get back I plan on taking up a new hobby--pension and all."
"And what's that?" asked Williams.
Williams sneered. "We all have our passions."
Two months later, the commodore and his crew were more at ease. They couldn't help but feel nervous about the weather. He examined in retrospect that long wet difficult winter at sea, and was overcome by how quiet and still things were...how cooperative, uncomplaining, hardworking, and sincere.
But how long would it last?
He pulled out his telescope, put it up to his eye and gazed into the night air. The ship was approaching the North Pole at a slanted longitude of minus 20° degrees, which at first seemed problematic. The Technata's scouring lamps couldn't get a fix on the surrounding water, and there was the possibility of a glacier pond ahead since they were nearing their destination. The fog didn't help either. Beyond thirty feet of the starboard bow, they were as blind as a bat; hopefully, Stryker had set a course that would keep them out of harm's way.
He licked his finger and put it in the air facing north, saying, "There's a storm a brewin'." He tucked the telescope back into his inside pocket and pulled his coat closer around him. A second later he pulled out a notepad and started jotting down numbers, figures--his own calculations, trying to avoid a hit whether the glaciers in the area were surveyed or not. If there was one thing he didn't trust it was the helm, which was unusual for a man of his position. What seemed like blackish-blue rocks under mounds of ice and white paste was actually a flat, frozen tundra waiting to be explored. There was even a canal, a narrow waterway along which the ship could travel.
It was difficult to recognize the area, or determine the distance of the tundra because Stryker felt it necessary to move slowly through the water. All Williams tried to do was see the place as it had once been; a region filled with a dry cold, not the blustery weather he had come to expect. He could see it as clean and enjoyable, yet at the same time eerie and ominous, the sort of place he would have visited himself if the Secretary General hadn't always intervened.
Stryker came upstairs and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and was given an important piece of paper. "What's this?" he asked him.
"I've given a copy to everyone on board," said the captain swiftly. "They're manda- tory. The men must have their instructions before they reach the icy plain."
"Looks like a bunch of tactical mumbo jumbo if you ask me."
"Perhaps you find this to be a joyride just because we're portal-chasing."
Williams gave the captain a dirty look. If there was one thing he hated it was a fresh seafarer. "No, safety measures should be well thought-out for all long voyages. It's just that I sometimes lose faith in the helm, and those who are behind the operation of it."
Stryker contracted his brows. He knew that the remark was a stab in the back to-wards him. "I find your lack of concern disturbing, Jessup. Preparation is necessary for success. You once said so yourself. To tell you the truth, I don't like what we're coming into one bit. So please read it thoroughly."
The commodore gave a short huff of disgust, but in the end he shook his head and agreed to read it. Then he told Stryker to go to his quarters and get a bottle of scotch out of his Biedermeier cabinet, where he kept most of his whiskies, bourbon and booze, and to spread a little around to the boys who were working extra hard on the poop deck.
A chill wind was blowing gustily from the opposite direction, further east. Behind its barred doors, the pole snatched uneasy sleep. The ship made its way speedily through the mazelike twists and turns of the canal. Stryker was handling the crossing well. So far it had been an uninterrupted journey. To Williams, this was a landscape transformed from the one he had ventured into a year ago. He had seen it as hostile, a vast sprawling foe…
He had once again been a stranger in an enemy land.
Since then he had learned much; supremely, that he wasn't an enemy. The North Pole, he knew now, was a place of silence and mystery, yearning for deliverance. All his doubts and hesitations were purged away. His own part in that deliverance was no longer a naval duty, but a personal necessity. If only clues had appeared before your eyes, he thought to himself…things would be so much simpler.
The sky suddenly became black with anger. Rain hammered down on the starboard bow, forming pool-size puddles. Williams's premonition had been right, only that the storm had arrived earlier than expected. A jagged burst of lightning illuminated the scene briefly, showing that there was very little in sight. And very little to get excited about.
Within minutes, the commodore was soaked to the skin. The rain was falling so hard that it stung. His gray hair, sticking out of his cap and in need of a trim, was plastered to his face, his peacoat drenched and clinging. He still could see no trace of a portal, and in this cold wet storm nothing was likely to notice him.
He returned to the control deck, where Stryker had been waiting for him. Better to get inside now than stay out and get sick later. "Wouldn't it be nice if rain stopped for humans?" he mumbled under his breath.
Stryker overheard. He was now at the helm. "But it won't now, will it?"
"No, it won't," the commodore chuckled. "By the way, do a recount on the rafts and lifeboats. I have this feeling we'll be needing them, whether we're traveling by sea or air."
Stryker nodded and passed the order to two lackeys behind him. He hated it when Williams had these "hunches". "I wish you wouldn't speak of such disaster, Jessup. You make me nervous." His hands couldn't stay put on the wheel.
"Why? Are you afraid? Do you think I'm jinxing us when I talk this way?"
"No, but you're leading me on, making me think some omen will cause our destruction."
Williams lit up his pipe for a smoke and grunted with anticipation. He was actually expecting disaster; perhaps if things were more bad than good, there would be a better chance of a portal appearing.
Now, as before, rain was falling, fine and cold, and driven by a gust. The glaciers along the side of the canal remained menacing. Officer Pierce Lane came running up to the helm. He was out of breath. "Sir, we may have an emergency," he said. "I spotted a whale killer [which was the naval term for a giant iceberg] from the poop deck. It's in our sector, due northeast at 113.5!"
Stryker dropped his jaw. "That's impossible! That would send the longitude reading off the scale!" He looked out the window. "Damn storm!"
Williams, on the other hand, seemed much calmer. "Mr Lane, gather as many sailors as you can. We're on blue alert, not red. Do you hear me?"
"You're taking this rather lightly," added Stryker.
"No need to be angry, captain," Williams assured him. "I know what's happening. This is more serious than you think. We must be prepared for the worst. This is just like the last time." He looked back over at Officer Lane. "Have your men on steadfast! Batten down the hatches, secure the cargo and air crates behind the taffrail, and put the rations in the hold, at least for now."
"May I also recommend screening the starboard bow, sir?" asked Lane.
Williams nodded. "Agreed."
Lane, too, shook his head affirmatively and rushed down to the lower decks. Stryker was minimizing the alert, under Williams's order, but a second later the commodore took it back and denied it by stating, "Keep us straight, and forget the whale killer--at least for now. We may go airborne."
Suddenly the ship careened into the side of a glacier, not the whale killer, but the force was still equal to the trampling blow of two-dozen stampeding elephants. The captain's attention had been diverted for only a second, yet Williams had caught a glimpse of it and warned him just in time.
After the shock, Stryker hit the floor and the helm spun itself out of control. It wasn't carelessness or an unwatchful eye, but a mistake…a mistake to return to that very region. "I thought Lane was a good spotter!" he said sarcastically. He was trying to grab hold of something. Anything he could get a firm grip on would do, but the ship was still too shaky.
"So we entered a glacier pond," said Williams, as he tried to help regain control of the ship. "An error in Lane's judgement, that's all." Yet neither of them, or any seamen aboard for that matter, knew about the large gash in the side leaking oil.
Stryker took his binoculars and looked out the window. "That's all? How can you be so calm? We're stranded out here, stuck on some frozen rock, forced to float aimlessly on it, possibly with a busted tailfin!"
"I don't want to argue, Stryker. It was you who got us stuck in this pond, and as for Lane, I probably would have misjudged the same directional crossing. For three hours the bow was surrounded by fog!"
"Then what should we do?" Stryker may have been high in rank, but he was losing his backbone where captaining the Technata was concerned. But Williams, he was a different story.
"Let's free ourselves from these worries," he said. "I hate these chunks of ice just as much as you do. I say we take her up! That's what the Technata is for. Wake up our piloting staff and contact the engineering department."
There seemed to be no other choice. They could either take to the sky, avoiding the glacier pond (and, of course, the whale killer) or sit back and drift helplessly in the opposite direction. And there was still the gash. They were losing oil--and fast!
Stryker got on the main speaker. "Pilots, seamen, and other officers, this is your captain speaking! Those of you enlisted in the Technata's aeronautics or engineering department, strategical in-flight and sonar detection…I wish to inform you that your training will be put to good use! We are currently trapped in a glacier pond and amidst a whale killer! Consider this a state of temporary emergency if you will! I repeat, we are currently trapped in a glacier pond and amidst a whale killer! This is a state of temporary emergency!"
A moment later the commodore pushed him aside and got on the horn himself. "This is your commodore speaking," he exclaimed. "Brave hearts, men. Our survival and progress depends on you, and how high you can take us. The Technata was once meant to rule the sea, but now let us raise her up and dominate the skies. Take up your positions and buckle down. Run the ship's titanium dust propellers, release the flaps, and follow through with Mr Lane's blue alert. This is not a drill. The Airship Technata is about to be born."
Stryker gave a sigh of relief. "You finally did something smart for a change. Those men look up to you."
"Watch your tongue, mister!" the commodore battled back. For some reason he found the captain's attitude most inappropriate. "Next time I'll pull rank if I have to. You're the captain of this ship. This was entirely supposed to be your job."
"But you kept stepping in. What could I do?"
"My interference is just an excuse, Mr Stryker. You've done nothing but ask me questions and show me cowardice this whole trip!"
At that moment there was a loud twisting grinding sound, like gears being spun around and put in place. The control deck and bow of the ship came together and merged, and both were now outside. The starboard bow stretched out and the masts lowered into air-refueling flaps alongside it. The Technata transformed from a navy carrier vessel into a giant airship with dragonfly-shaped wings, and an indestructible hovering plate with dust propellers beneath it. A series of buzzing sounds followed the metamorphosis. It left the icy bondage of the Arctic Ocean and ascended into the night sky. The commodore was happy.
He was proud.
"I wouldn't relax yet, Jessup," said Stryker uneasily. Once again his mouth was agape. "The whale killer and the glacier pond was just an appetizer compared to this."
Williams was confused. "What do you mean?"
Stryker directed his attention to a round beam of light in the distance.
"Don't be frightened," Williams said, yet he found it hard to swallow. "Stay at the helm and keep our flight pattern steady, along with the other pilots."
Stryker had a concerned look on his face. "What are you going to do?"
Williams said simply, "I'm going in."
But before he started his approach he rushed over to the captain's clock and set it ten minutes fast. He did the same with his own pocket watch, then fiddled with the binnacle dial by Stryker's side and raced toward the bow. "This is it," he said expectantly. "We're directly in its path."
"Flight pattern bearing 023.9," Stryker yelled out. "Steady as she goes!"
023.9 was a good sign (less than 40 knots), but Williams was too captivated to listen. "This portal is much different than the one I encountered before," he muttered. Perhaps it was different because he had never been up in the air and so close. "It's more intense, more powerful. But where does it get its energy? And where does it lead?"
Better yet, what did it mean? And what purpose would it have for an independent, yet congressional navy?
He pulled out his silver dollar, the one he had found back at the base a little under two months ago. It had been lucky for him so far, would its luck remain untainted? He looked right and left, flipped, and just as it was about to return to his hand it froze--in midair! Stryker gave control of the helm to Lane and stepped forward. "One of us will have to go closer," he said, a shameful look on his face. "I'm sorry I disbelieved you, Jessup. Let me make it up. I'll go."
"Shhh!" Williams put his hand over the captain's mouth. "Look at the position of the coin. Amazing! We must be in a state of displacement!" He took his coin back and started running toward the control deck.
"Where are you going?" asked Stryker curiously.
Williams ran over to the clock. It was ten minutes fast. He also checked his pocket watch. Also ten minutes fast. Then he went over to the binnacle dial. It was spinning around and acting all haywire. "So, we are in a state of displacement," he grinned, patting Officer Lane on the back. Lane had no idea what he was talking about. All Lane knew was that he was getting nervous at the helm.
Stryker came back. "You were right. Time is playing with us. There must be some kind of vortex here."
"I'm going back," Williams said, pushing the captain aside.
Stryker grabbed his arm. "No, let me go. I owe you."
Williams looked at the coin in his hand. "All right, heads or tails?" He smiled enigmatically. "We have to be reasonable."
Stryker nodded and chose heads.
Williams tossed the coin in the air, but before it had a chance to land, or freeze in the air again, he ran to the edge of the ship. Stryker felt gipped.
Williams stood on the bow now, looking into the portal with half-open eyes. He was awestruck, consumed with a wonder like no other. A shadowy figure was walking out of the gateway toward him. It was a man, a commodore from another ship coming to greet him, only that he looked unusually fake. The man was pale and drawn, and wore a navy peacoat, just like Williams. It was actually a ghost: an ethereal reflection of Williams himself, but from another time and another place; perhaps even a parallel world.
"It's a shame that it has to end here," the apparition said, with a bellow of laughter...but a jolly kind of laughter; the specter was far from sinister.
Williams was confused. "What are you talking about? And who are you?"
"This is what becomes a glory seeker," the ghost continued, handing him a piece of currency. "We all do."
A moment later he, or it, returned to the portal. There seemed to be nothing further to discuss. But what relevance did the speech have in the first place?
The whole thing sent shivers up Williams's spine, especially when he looked at the bill he was holding. His complexion turned dead white at the sight of his own face on a naval dollar bill. "What am I doing on legal tender?" he asked himself.
A question which, unfortunately, he could not answer.
And then, unexpectedly, he thought of his crew and family. His mind dragged from its consuming obsession with time and the other side, and for a brief moment all he was aware of was a sort of emptiness that seemed to carry within it the seed of some unknown future pain. All along he was hoping to find excelsior, but found utter failure instead.
He returned to Stryker withdrawn. All his hope and all his anticipation had been washed away. He knew what it all meant now. He had dipped into the future, a grim one. Somehow, he had died on the voyage, or perhaps a future one, and his restless spirit had warned him of this. That very same portal was his resting place. After all, it was he himself who best summed up his death at sea and the vision behind it, by saying, "It must be the thrill, because I believe that only when a man is at the end of his tether--be it physically, mentally, morally, spiritually or financially--is the true side of his fate revealed."