(This story first appeared in the magazine Interzone, issue 121, dated July 1997.

The Last Flight of Captain Bale

by Phil Masters

The morning mist was still an impenetrable blanket over the sea-loch, but on the slopes of the mountain above, the sun shone with watery brightness. The Inspector breathed deeply of the Highland air as he dismounted from his carriage, and a small smile played briefly across his lips, but it vanished swift as it had appeared. Today’s business was serious business, and Inspector McBryant of the Glasgow Constabulary was a serious man.

He feared that the same might not be true of the fellow he was chiefly here to meet. Walter Jedburgh emerged promptly enough from the hut where he had spent the night, and gave him a firm handshake, but there was an air of cheerful enthusiasm about the man that stood ill, in McBryant’s judgement, with the important and moral business of thief-taking. But then, Jedburgh was an American, from a land notorious for its frontier lawlessness.

“You’ve everything prepared, then?” McBryant asked.

“Ever since last night” answered Jedburgh, with a casual wave towards the hut. “Now, sir, I am in your spotters’ hands, and those of fate. And not forgetting Captain Bale, of course.”

“Hmmph.” McBryant was a diligent Presbyterian, and would have put the thing a little differently.

“No need to be glum, Inspector,” said Jedburgh, “this will all be settled soon enough, for good or ill. Even if Captain Bale lets us down today, we’ll catch him eventually.”

“Maybe,” said McBryant, “but I cannot forget that, if it were not for this scheme, we could have taken up a dozen rogues from the streets of Glasgow...”

“To what real end, sir?” Jedburgh’s enthusiasm made him forget his manners, as he interrupted the policeman in mid-speech. “Oh yes, you could have pulled in a few fences and sneaks, but none of ’em were guilty of more than petty stuff, were they, sir? Contrariwise, when this is done, you can bag the lot of ’em. And you’ll know that they were in cahoots with Bale.”

“A jury might ask for more proof” said McBryant. “And for now, they’re still about their usual ways.”

Jedburgh shook his head ruefully. “Let’s net the big fish today, shall we, Inspector? The small fry tomorrow?”

“That must be the way of it. Is there aught more you want? Have you spoken with the sergeants among the spotters?”

“I have, and I have every confidence in them, sir.” Even as Jedburgh spoke, the teams of spotters were ambling into view, from tents behind the ridge of the mountain and carts come up from the nearest village. They did not appear especially disciplined – aside from the mixture of constables from a half-dozen Scottish police forces and artillerymen from three regiments, there were several civilians, ghillies from estates roundabout – but Jedburgh and McBryant both knew that they were as stout and reliable a band of men as the day’s work could demand.

“I am pleased to hear it.” McBryant moved away to speak with those same sergeants, while Jedburgh turned to attend to his own, unique contribution to the pursuit of Captain Bale.

This was presently housed within the mountainside hut, and Jedburgh had resolved that it should remain there until the moment when it would take flight. No distant spy’s telescope would alert Captain Bale to the foe he faced today. Jedburgh’s machine had been brought up the Scottish mountain in three cart-loads of wooden packing-cases, and assembled where it now rested. Jedburgh had practised this strategy, and was confident that the machine would function perfectly, even though it had not been tested since it was re-assembled. Of course, a hundred yards of wooden rails had perforce been laid down the slope from the hut’s great double doors – but even that task had been left until the very afternoon before this day.

The whole business had nonetheless been more noticeable than Jedburgh entirely liked, but he felt sure that it had been less ostentatious than, say, the assignment of a flotilla of the Royal Navy’s new, experimental special escort gunboats could ever have been. This was a trap fit to catch even a wary fox like Captain Bale – and Jedburgh’s invention would close that trap.

Jedburgh was applying a little more grease to a set of impeller-shafts when McBryant came to bid him farewell.

“You’ll not stay and watch the hunt, sir?” Jedburgh enquired.

McBryant shook his head. “No, Mr Jedburgh. Duty calls. I have reports to write, and officers to supervise, back in Fort William.” He looked Jedburgh in the eye, and extended a firm hand to shake. “Well, Mr Jedburgh, this business is all with you, now. And – good luck.”

Jedburgh returned the handshake with a rueful smile, and watched McBryant return to his carriage. Then he turned once more to his machine.

The day was three hours older when a call from one of the spotters caused Jedburgh to turn a spy-glass on the northern end of the sea-loch. There indeed was the bait – a single-funnelled steam-launch, forging through the water with slow efficiency. Jedburgh nodded, though no-one was close enough to see; thus far, the plan had proceeded as he, McBryant, and a dozen others had secretly plotted.

The steam-launch was the subject of a dozen rumours, carefully placed in the grimy back-streets and rowdy drinking-dens of Glasgow. Its course had been laid so that Captain Bale – if he acted on those rumours – would surely have to strike here and now. Bale’s hide-out was still unknown, but the locations of his past crimes, surveyed on a map, hinted at the limits of his area of operation. But Jedburgh could not, now, deny to himself that all of this was based on a tenuous web of hints and suppositions.

Ten minutes passed. Then came the piercing blast of a police whistle from higher on the mountain-side. The spotter responsible swiftly called out a compass bearing, and a dozen voices soon called out, I have him!

Jedburgh turned his gaze and then his spy-glass in the direction that he heard called. At first he saw nothing, and then a flickering speck in the sky; then, all in a moment, he found his prey.

A distant silhouette; an oval, pointed at front and stern, with something of a form below it. Jedburgh muttered assent, waved to two nearby spotter-constables, and stepped into the hut, casting his spy-glass carelessly onto a work-table.

He moved swiftly to his craft, drawing a box of fat-headed sulphur matches from his pocket as he opened a panel in one side of the machine. One match flared, and a wad of spirit-soaked rags responded to its touch. Jedburgh snapped the panel closed, and drew down an iron lever. A clockwork mechanism awoke, feeding the growing fire with finely-powdered anthracite.

Within seconds, Jedburgh was watching the boiler’s simple thermometer rise, and soon, its pressure gauge began to follow. Jedburgh could not restrain a smile; many a more experienced steam engineer had told him that he could never depend upon his engine to react so quickly, and would have had him waste fuel and effort in keeping a preparatory fire burning since daybreak.

He cast off the heavy woollen coat that he had worn in the crisp mountain air, and replaced it with a close-fitting jacket of sheep-skin. Next, he donned a leather helmet and a pair of goggles, their lenses made of what he was assured was the strongest glass in the world. Then, he knew, he had no further reason to delay; the boiler was near to its working pressure.

He mounted the machine’s broad saddle as the spotter-constables, responding to his earlier signal, finished drawing back the hut’s main doors. Then Jedburgh tugged at a release-rope, removing heavy wooden wedges from under his craft, and cast those wedges away.

The wedges had been restraining the wheels of a trolley on which his machine sat. Now, unrestrained, the whole assemblage responded to gravity, and began to roll down the rail-track. As soon as his wings were clear of the door-frame, Jedburgh pushed one last lever into place, and twisted a valve to increase the flow of anthracite to the firebox.

With a preliminary hiss, and a creaking of mechanisms, the steam engine began supplying motive force to forged steel connecting rods. With that, the ornithopter’s wings began to beat, slow and ponderous at first, but soon vigorous and swift. The trolley gathered speed down the rails, creaking in what seemed to Jedburgh like gratitude as the ornithopter gained lift and relieved it of its load.

The end of the hundred yards came at a point where the slope of the mountain twisted into a precipitous drop of ten or fifteen feet. The trolley plunged down there, and shattered among the heather – but the ornithopter carried on, wings beating ever harder as they drew it up into the pale blue summer sky.

Now Jedburgh could turn his attention once again to his particular task. For a moment, he could not see the dirigible which was his prey, but a glance at his compass, and a recollection of the bearing which the spotters had called, soon set his gaze right. Captain Bale was coming on yet, his own eyes no doubt fixed upon the steam-launch.

Jedburgh twisted the valve a little more, more anthracite entered his fire-box, and the boiler grew hotter. Now, with all mechanisms engaged, the ensuing increase in pressure could find release; the ornithopter’s wings beat ever harder. Jedburgh adjusted a lever to furl them a little, so that he gained barely any more height, but considerable speed – and at the same time, he turned his steering-bar, and set the prow of his craft towards the dirigible.

A bare minute later, as he drew closer to his prey, Jedburgh was able to discern that the dirigible’s side was embellished with a great flag – a diagonal blue cross, bespangled with white stars and rimmed with white, on a red ground.

Jedburgh smiled thinly. He had contemplated decorating the ornithopter with the stars and stripes, but he had abandoned that idea. Today, he flew for justice, and for the Glasgow Constabulary.

(Albeit that a discreet word had reached him from the United States embassy in London, that his actions were viewed with gratitude, as reducing an embarrassment.)

And thus it was that the crew of the pirate dirigible saw their challenger come upon them; a skeletal structure of wood and iron, with wings of heavy canvas, trailing a thin line of steam and smoke. Doubtless, they instantly recognised the ornithopter for the threat it was, but they could only be slow to respond. Their own craft was largely at the mercy of the winds. Despite its own powerful steam-engine, and the huge rudder and other mechanisms with which it was equipped, it was a clumsy thing compared to its new opponent.

Jedburgh knew that he could set the terms for this encounter. “Something you’re not used to, I think, Captain” he murmured. But at that moment, he saw a flickering spark appear upon the dirigible’s gondola, and he impulsively shifted the steering-bar aside.

Then, even as the ornithopter responded with a swift turn, he told himself that his caution was unwarranted. Clearly, Captain Bale was carrying a Gatling-gun as well as the brutal array of shrapnel-bombs with which he had terrorised and butchered his victims on land and sea. Well, that made him somewhat more of a danger to the ornithopter, but Jedburgh had studied weapons, and their applications in such exotic circumstances. He knew how inaccurate the rapid-firing Gatling was, and he judged that he could remain at a distance at which its bullets could never hope to strike him. His own weapons, he was sure, were less constrained.

Jedburgh simply completed the turn into which his first response had forced his craft, so that the dirigible was once more ahead of his prow. There was a sight placed among his array of control levers and valve-toggles – a simple but precise assemblage of wire and wrought iron, marked with a few numbers in white enamel paint. Now, he squinted at it with care, and at Captain Bale’s craft with predatory concentration.

Holding the ornithopter’s steering-bar steady with his left hand, Jedburgh reached under the saddle with his right, and found the bank of knife-switches, each linked to the single, heavy, lead-acid battery mounted in the fuselage behind him. A tight smile crossed his lips as he drew the ornithopter about a little more, and aligned its gunnery sight with the dirigible’s decorated bulk.

“Now, Captain Bale,” he murmured, “Let us consider the art of modern warfare.”

Jedburgh snapped the first knife-switch closed. In a bank of metal tubes mounted under the ornithopter’s prow, an electric spark flared briefly, igniting a charge; with a sharp hiss, the rocket leapt forward from its launching-tube. For a moment, Jedburgh was blinded by the cloud of acrid smoke that billowed around the ornithopter, but the craft immediately broke out of that, enabling its pilot to watch the bright flare of the rocket rush and twist through the air ahead of him.

The launching-tubes were angled slightly upwards, to grant the rockets the greatest possible range; Jedburgh watched the flame describe a curved path towards the dirigible, before it fell well short of its target.

Jedburgh whistled under his breath, a single note; for all his careful self-training, he had misjudged the range, and been too optimistic in his hopes for the rocket’s power. There was no need for him to repeat the error, and the battle was not yet done; however, he was unhappy at the lapse. Walter Jedburgh was a man who forgave error in others more swiftly than he forgave it in himself.

The flickering of his opponent’s Gatling-gun reminded him of the reason for his cautious use of distance. He turned the ornithopter about as he pondered somewhat of tactics.

He decided on a sequence of experiments. Firstly, he drew back on the control-bar, and the ornithopter began to climb, higher than his target. For a moment, Jedburgh felt confident, and reached for the small rack of phosphor-bombs at his side. Each had attached to it three small, barbed grapples. Dropped on the dirigible, they could be expected to cling on like burrs before detonating.

But that theory was not to be tested. The dirigible could not manoeuvre, but it could shed ballast, and climb vigorously. At the sight of Jedburgh’s own action, its pilot made it act so. For a long minute, Jedburgh made his craft’s steam engine labour and its wings thrash, but in half that time, he had recognised defeat.

There were few other options. Jedburgh twisted the control-bar, sending the ornithopter on a circular path around the dirigible, occasionally driving his craft closer as he carefully watched the flickering spark of the Gatling’s response. Within a single minute he was reasonably certain that the gun could not bear directly aft.

And so, that was where he placed himself, before turning to close directly on his target. One hand held the steering-bar steady as the other grasped the second knife-switch. However, Captain Bale had a response. Although the lighter-than-air craft had none of the ornithopter’s agility, it had its own motive power, and could be steered. As Jedburgh closed, his target lurched and shifted before him. Jedburgh gritted his teeth and struggled to hold the sight steady on the gas-bag.

Coming as close as he dared to his prey, he closed the knife-switch with a firm pressure. Again, the rocket sprang up and forward, and at precisely that moment, with a burst of steam-power and a shift in its rudder, the dirigible slipped sideways. The rocket missed by the narrowest of margins, before plummeting down towards the Atlantic waves, its path marked by smoke.

Jedburgh pulled the ornithopter aside by main force, and was hundreds of yards from the dirigible before he could begin to ponder. Then, he contemplated the nearness of that miss. Had he made some error of judgement, which he could discipline himself to avoid during future attempts? He was unsure.

“Ah, well,” said Jedburgh to himself, and twisted the steering-bar, so that the ornithopter turned yet further away from the dirigible. Then he adjusted two valve-controls. The first was that which controlled the speed at which pulverised anthracite was fed into the ornithopter’s fire-box; the second increased the driver-piston’s all-important steam pressure. Within a second, the ornithopter’s wings were beating more strongly, dragging the craft swiftly through the air; a touch at other controls changed the angle of the lifting surfaces and of the tail, and the ornithopter began a slow, steady climb.

Jedburgh set his controls so that the climb took the form of an upward spiral, and set himself to watching Captain Bale’s craft. The sky-pirate had evidently abandoned his intent to strike at the steam-launch; however brash his confidence, he had no doubt guessed that the rumour of valuable government bonds in transit was no more than bait. However, the fight, dictated by the dirigible’s speed, had not yet carried its protagonists as far as the first island in the mouth of the sea-loch.

Jedburgh looked at the barometer which gave him an assessment of his altitude. He was now flying as high as he had ever taken the ornithopter in the past; according to the savants he had consulted, Captain Bale’s dirigible was capable of little more. Both craft could climb only slowly under these conditions.

Although he could not surpass the dirigible, Jedburgh somehow felt that he held the high ground.

“And, Captain Bale,” he murmured softly, “the high ground is always and forever the very acme of tactical advantage.”

He pushed a control lever forward, and began a dive. The dirigible could not react to this action with much haste, even if its crew saw reason. For a moment, Jedburgh smiled, feeling as he believed a sparrow-hawk might feel as it swooped upon a fat and foolish duck.

Then, he hauled back on the bar. The ornithopter had purchased velocity with its plunge; it retained somewhat of that speed even as it climbed. Jedburgh released an involuntary cry of joy as he sped at the dirigible like an arrow from Hercules’ bow, too swift for the Gatling-gunner to hold sights on him.

But then, Jedburgh occupied himself with his own rocket-sights. He had tested and calibrated these for all manner of conditions; a glance at an adjacent spirit-level told him his angle of flight, and he once again applied his well-trained judgement of distance. Then he aligned a mark on the sights with his prey, and snapped two of the knife-switches closed at once.

The ornithopter bucked from the back-blast of the two rockets, then twisted into another dive at an even steeper angle, plunging close past the dirigible a bare second after the rockets found their mark. Jedburgh could not restrain a cry of triumph as a scarlet flames bloomed across the gas-bag. At that same moment, he heard an abrupt report from behind him on the ornithopter’s hull. A moment later, as it seemed to him, the main control lever flinched in his grasp.

Jedburgh looked aft of his saddle, and saw ripped fabric, and a lesser control-cable flying free. One bullet from the Gatling-gun had found its mark.

Looking forward again, he realised that the ornithopter had now dived to within a bare hundred feet or so of the grey sea. He snatched at the lever which feathered the wings, then, forcing himself to act with smooth caution, he drew back on the steering-bar.

For a moment, Jedburgh believed that all was well, as the horizon fell below the ornithopter’s prow. He twisted the steam-feed control valve, and his engine hummed smoothly in response; the wings beat strongly, pulling the craft higher in the air.

Then the bar in Jedburgh’s hand twitched once again, and he heard the almost musical sound of a control cable giving way somewhere at his back. The ornithopter twisted in the air, its stability deteriorating by the moment.

Jedburgh looked down, and saw the decoy-ship to his left. With immeasurable care, he drew on the controls to bring his craft around, and wound the engine power down until the wings were barely beating. Then he leant far forward, and dragged at the mechanism which disengaged the wing-motion shafts.

The ornithopter was now a simple glider, and Jedburgh was able to concentrate on the problem of identifying which among its controls were no longer effective. The stabiliser tail-structure was clearly severely damaged, but it had at least become jammed in a relatively neutral configuration. As Jedburgh’s success in executing a slow turn proved, the rudder was not destroyed, and the wing-feathering mechanism was entirely undamaged. However, something in the motion of the hull told Jedburgh that the bullet had damaged structural members as well as linkage cables.

The ornithopter was a dozen feet above the water when the stress of even a gliding flight finally told. The prow leapt up, then slammed down just as the craft plunged into the sea. Most of the aft structure tore away at the moment of impact, and the boiler give a great steam-kettle hiss as the salt water dowsed it. Jedburgh pushed himself away from the saddle, then snatched at part of the wing, whose light, strong structure proved, as he had hoped, able to float.

Jedburgh gasped as the excitement of the moment of crisis left him, and it came home to him how bitterly cold the northern Atlantic could be. But then he heard a hail. Looking round, he saw the decoy ship draw up close to hand. A burly seaman hurled a life-belt, and Jedburgh struck out across the few feet to reach it. As soon as they were sure of the security of Jedburgh’s grasp on the ring, the ship’s crew began to draw on its rope, and Jedburgh was dragged through the water. Strong hands lifted him the last part of the way, a coarse blanket was thrown around his shoulders, and a mug of what proved to be rum-spiked tea was thrust into his hands.

This he found an embarrassing encumbrance when an upright figure in naval blue approached him. Jedburgh had been introduced to Lieutenant Hatfield, a Royal Navy man, in the days of preparation for his mission.

“Are you well, Mr Jedburgh?” Hatfield enquired.

“Well enough, lieutenant.” Jedburgh was careful to use the British pronunciation of the rank. “My thanks, sir.”

Hatfield’s formal reserve broke with a broad smile, and for the first time, Jedburgh realised how young the man was. “It’s you that’s earned thanks, Mr Jedburgh,” said the navy man. “That was dashed fine shooting. Good work.”

Jedburgh smiled back. “I got him in the end,” he muttered.

“Good work” repeated Hatfield. “And speaking of which...”

He looked over his shoulder, to the bow of the ship, and Jedburgh saw their next objective.

Captain Bale’s dirigible had plummeted to the sea, and fragments of the structure floated a quarter of a mile away, still burning intermittently. But its crew had survived; two silk parachutes lay on the surface of the water, and two figures were treading water, waving at the ship.

“You’re picking them up?” asked Jedburgh, feeling foolish for the question even as he spoke.

“Of course.” Hatfield and his crew shrugged the question off, and turned to the task. Jedburgh reflected that the seamen might easily have taken a more brutal view; bare minutes earlier, they had faced the possibility of explosive death from Bale’s vicious, plummeting bombs. Their vessel carried a small anti-dirigible mortar, on the new design being hurriedly pressed into service on land and sea throughout the world, but Captain Bale had proved his ability to strike accurately from above the range of such weapons; the crew had been terribly vulnerable. But like other truly professional warriors to whom Jedburgh had spoken, they clearly abandoned all feelings of malice or vengeance when the battle was done.

Jedburgh moved forward to watch the rescue, taking care not to obstruct the task as he sipped at the mug. He was curious to see his recent antagonist.

The first man out of the water was, Jedburgh guessed, the gunner; a short, swarthy fellow in Confederate grey, who proved taciturn and sullen in the face of a pair of reciprocators trained on him by sailors of the crew. He stood aside, with arms by his side and fists slightly clenched, as the second figure emerged from the brine.

Captain Bale barely accepted any assistance from the Royal Navy men as he climbed aboard their craft, and stepped over the rail with a grace that belied his appearance. Even clad in wet mechanician’s overalls, visibly shivering in the cold, and faced with a half-dozen captors, the one-time Darling of the South, later Avenger of Dixie, and latterly Terror of the Isles, cut a dashing figure.

He was no taller than several of the sailors, and yet his bearing made him seem to tower over the men who stepped forward to search him for weapons. His brown eyes and handsome face matched the accounts in numerous romantic prints and Confederate broad-sheets, and even his neat military moustache had survived his recent immersion.

Dash it, thought Jedburgh, the fellow could have been made to play the melodrama hero. Was he born, or sculpted, or dreamed up?

But Bale was human enough; his air of sangfroid might not falter before the muzzles of the guns that were held on him while he submitted to a personal search, but Jedburgh saw him shiver a moment in the Scottish breeze, and saw uncertainty drifting into his expression. Then Lieutenant Hatfield stepped forward and spoke.

“Captain Thierry Bale, I charge you with Murder, with Piracy on the High Seas, and with Armed Robbery.”

Bale shook his head, but even he could find no words to deny the accusations. Evidently, his far-famed, defiant pride had been worn away in the course of his transformation, from a soldier who would not surrender, first to a wild buccaneer striking against his former enemies, and then to a murderous brigand assaulting defenceless folk who had no part in his lost war.

Then his glance took in Jedburgh, and some flame burned in his eyes once more. He took three paces down the deck.

“Sir,” he said, “I take it that you were the operator of that bird-machine which brought me down?”

The deduction, while swift, could hardly have been difficult, given Jedburgh’s garb and situation. Jedburgh nodded. “Yes, Captain Bale,” he answered.

“I am impressed by your machine, sir,” said Bale, “And by your courage. Few such craft have seen combat before now.”

Jedburgh said nothing.

“You are American, sir, from your accent?” Bale asked, and Jedburgh nodded again. “Tell me then, sir,” the air-pirate continued, “what motivated you to oppose me? Did my aerial cavaliers rout your regiment in the War Between the States? Did some member of your family suffer in my missions of retaliation against Boston or New York? Have you lost friends or property to my recent actions?”

To each of these questions, Jedburgh shook his head. Bale was left gazing at him, speechless.

“No sir,” said Jedburgh. “You were a menace to the peace of this nation, and to the good name of our own...”

Your own nation, sir” Bale snapped.

Jedburgh shrugged; with Bale now taken, and doomed to the mercies of the British courts, he found that he felt little interest in debating ideals with the man. “As you please. You had to be stopped, and I had the means to accomplish that.”

Bale continued to stare. “I do not believe I understand you, sir” he said softly.

Jedburgh shrugged again. “That is not my concern, Captain Bale.” He turned away, leaving Bale to the attentions of the crewmen, and spoke to Hatfield. “Where are we bound now, then, lieutenant? Fort William?”

Hatfield smiled again. “No, Mr Jedburgh,” he answered. “We have coal enough, and the day is before us. I shall hand these rogues over to the Glasgow police, as I am ordered – and that, I think, means that we should set course for Glasgow.”

Jedburgh found himself returning the smile. “Where else indeed, lieutenant. To Glasgow!” And with that, he turned to the prow of the ship, and looked forward to another visit to the proud, futuristic town of steel ships and busy, smoky mills.

// END //

For Mike Pondsmith.

(Copyright Phil Masters, 1997)

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