The Paracelsus is a scientific survey ship, painted dapple green on top and dapple blue underneath, with several shades of white blended along her sides, making her very difficult to see in an ocean environment, depending on weather. She was hovering motionless a few scores of meters above the water east of the island. Extremely long and sleek with a tubular compartmentalized water tank that ran along the airships keel and could be used, by transferring the liquid ballast in either direction, to help the ship dive or climb.
To the northeast the rescue ships from the platform were moving cautiously toward the island, slowly approaching the rocky ridge that rose on its northern edge, taller than the high point of the marble city and from whence, presumably, no artillery fired grapples were hidden. Aboard the Paracelsus is Captain Jennings, the pilot, Major Oldrich, the clockwork Prussian serving as ship’s engineer, Doctor Phineas Drummond, a surgeon, and Bishop Hispidus’ man, a taciturn individual named Gideon McCullough, an agent or scout, depending on his environment, of the Restored Republic who was in command of the expedition. McCullough was pure Texian, stocky, rough and dangerous, who rarely spoke but was pointedly salient whenever he did so. He had ordered Jennings to take up this specific position, and to point the nose of the ship toward the Platform Squadron to minimize their signature.
“I feel like a sitting duck out here Ranger,” said Jennings.
“Not looking for us,” was all McCullough said.
They had arrived thirty-six hours earlier, and had spent that time circumnavigating the island at a distance calculated to keep them out of range of any of the ordinance in the city. Now they watched the six medium aerostats sneak toward the marble wall low and slow. McCullough produced a long glass and watched their progress. Jennings had leaned back toward the Texian and was about to say something when dozens of bright orange flashes broke out on the sheer cliff wall. The lead Platform Aerostat suddenly collapsed in on itself, exploded, and plummeted in fiery ruin into the sea. The remaining five ships slowed to a stop, and then began accelerating backward. Still, the next closest in their wedge exploded and fell. Now obvious panic infected, and the airships, moving at flank speed, broke into different directions, angling toward different elevations; but, it was no good. One after another the ships folded and flamed and dropped into the ocean.
McCullough folded his glass and laid it aside. He gazed out at the empty, smoked sky, sniffed once and muttered to himself, “That was unfortunate.”
“What are your orders, Agent Gideon?”
“Make for our previous position. Descend so we can drop the skiff. I am going back to the cabins to rest. Wake me when we arrive. Oh, and go slow!” He went aft. As he left Major Oldrich began buzzing and clicking and stood.
“I shall go tend to the engines,” said the clockwork Prussian “you will have as much power as you need. Just keep your hand on the throttle and look out for muzzle flashes!” Then he left as well.
Jennings looked back now at the surgeon, who sat calmly reading a book. “Do you know this Texian character?”
“I have worked with him a time or two. Very serious individual and not a man to be trifled with. There is a kind of darkness in him, not particularly pleasant.” He continued reading, then stopped and squinted at the pilot. “I don’t know the Major.” Jennings arced the Paracelsus toward a position southeast of the island, then, after several hours in transit, sent the doctor to get McCullough.
They descended to a few meters above the waves and lowered a small steam powered boat to the water. The Texian, with a small knapsack and a rifle slung across his back, climbed down a rope ladder. He looked up and called out, “Wait forty eight hours, if I am not back return to the Bishop and inform him of our misfortune. In the meantime plot a course for Guadeloupe, if I return I have letters for immediate medical attention there,” and with that he stoked the engine and putted off toward his fate.