A funny thing happened on the way back to Houston...
|As we re-entered the tunnel, I had the distinct feeling of travelling upward as well as laterally this time. Colonel Spaulding and Dr. Gloriosky appeared surprised, and Spaulding moved his chin upward, then shrugged his shoulders. Gloriosky nodded emphatically, and smiled, then looked my way and winked.
We finally came to a stop on the deck of what appeared at first to be a sailing ship, her wooden decks dark with age, moving through a light mist all around. I looked to my right to see Constantine sitting down quite regally...about 3 feet off the deck. I pondered what kind of firmament he seemed to carry with him as he slowly curled down into a sleeping position at the same floating distance. Spaulding laughed at my amazement, "Don't try to figure it out, my boy, you'll just waste time and brain cells all for naught. We've all learned over the years that there aren't many physical laws he can't bend to his own convenience."
My grandfather's voice startled me, booming from the stern, "Welcome aboard, gentlemen, good to have you since we may need some hands on the guns at any moment!" The shock must have been evident on my face, because Gloriosky and Spaulding each took me by an arm and pulled me close. Spaulding's face showed extreme concern, "Don't identify yourself, Vincent. We need to get the lay of the land." Gloriosky chimed in, "We don't quite know where we are in the timeline just yet, and we don't want to cause an anomaly that we can't easily fix." I nodded my understanding of their concerns as I turned to face him.
Tall and robust, he stood at the rail, his dark gray hair and neatly trimmed beard trapped in time like the portrait from his 50th birthday that was on the mantle at the old house. He looked at the three of us and laughed out loud as he stepped to the starboard ladder and slid down to the main deck. "Gloriosky, Spaulding, it's good to see you. I don't want to know who your companion is just yet, but I can hazard the guess that we are related since the cat seems to be so comfortable with him." He stepped forward and took the two of them in his arms in a group hug that always seemed natural to him, a greeting style I had yet to master comfortably.
"No time to lose, men!" he said quickly, "Let's get below and see if we can warm up the lightning cannons before our pursuer catches up with us!" He motioned us forward to the forecastle, and as I followed the group, I came to realize more of the nature of our conveyance. The ship was indeed built in the general fashion of a sailing ship, but the sails seemed at first to be horizontal. As the mists cleared just a bit, I was able to make out that they were not sails at all, but the covers for the belly of a large airship, under which the vessel was suspended. There was no sea surrounding us, but clouds, through which we sailed at a good pace with the assistance of a great propeller that whirled off the stern of the ship. I was in awe of this wonderful vessel and had to speak up, "Might I ask the name of this ship?" "Of course you may, young man, she is called Pandora." Spaulding's head snapped towards Gloriosky, his eyes threatening to pop out of his face. Gloriosky just lowered his head and snuck a look back towards me. I could tell that the three of us would have to speak together, and soon.
Entering the forecastle hatch and going down one level to the gun deck, I was amazed to see the most unusual devices I had seen so far in my life. On each side of the ship, facing outward, were three devices; obviously the guns of which he spoke. Each gun sat 6 feet apart from the next, and consisted of three spheres approximately 24 inches in diameter connected in a framework holding them horizontally. At the outer end, there was, for the lack of a better word for it, a spike with a 6 inch ball on the end of it. On each side of the vessel, the breech end of each gun was connected to the other two by a 7 or 8 inch diameter copper pipe, both of which were in turn connected to a large copper and brass fitted sphere in the center of the deck that was easily 9 feet in diameter. Gauges and dials were arrayed on the front of the sphere, facing a very comfortable looking button-tuck velvet arm chair that was attached to the sphere with fancy iron work. As we approached the guns, I noticed that there were several harpoon launchers mounted between each gun, also facing outwards with their own firing ports. Gloriosky immediately went to the chair, belting himself in with a safety harness I hadn't noticed at first. He laughed raucously (a little bit forced, I thought), and turned to my grandfather. "Coffin, you'd better get above and make sure your helmsman gets us the best shot, or we'll all be in a pickle. We'll get this young man sorted out quickly enough."
"Sure enough, Doctor, sure enough." and with that he turned and raced back to the ladder and up to the main deck. Spaulding seemed ready to explode. "Damn and double damn! I had no idea that he was the Captain of the Pandora!" He spun around to face me, an anger I hadn't thought he possessed contorting his face. I had no idea what would trigger such a rage, but I thought I was sure to find out when his face went suddenly blank. His countenance became serene, then he smiled a sad smile and shook his head. "I should have known, Doctor, I should have known." He took me by the shoulders and explained his state.
"The Pandora was an airship quite well known to the Time Brigades. My brother encountered her on his last sortie aboard Her Majesty's Airship Cloudwitch, which was destroyed in the battle we are about to take part in." I was stunned. "Surely there is something we can do about this. Why would we be here otherwise?" Spaulding and Gloriosky looked at each other for a moment, seeming to share some truth I had yet to be able to understand. Dr. Gloriosky spoke solemnly, "We are the instruments of the Cloudwitch's doom, Vincent, that much is obvious. Look around you. The Pandora had no gunners until we arrived. In some cases, what is done cannot be left undone." Spaulding came to attention and faced me with great strength of spirit. "Let's get you trained on the operation of Lightning Cannon, Vincent. If I am destined to send my brother to the hereafter, it will be done properly!"
I listened to his instructions closely, knowing that I could not fail in this no matter how any of us felt about it. The harpoons were the key. They would be fired in paired volleys, to anchor as deep in the opposing vessel as possible, no closer than 6 and no farther than 10 feet apart. The harpoons would then function like lightning rods, to attract and transmit the electricity generated by the lightning guns. Spaulding described to me the weaknesses of the Cloudwitch, and identified the exact target points we had to aim for.
As he finished his instruction, we heard a great thrumming of motors off the port side. We stood to our guns with grim determination as a massive airship came alongside the Pandora, no more than 100 feet away. She was armed with gunpowder cannons, three decks of ten facing us alone. As they began belching their flame and shot at us, we took our positions, determined to do what could not be undone....