Chapter 3 Episode 3 | The Machine God | The Drifting Isle Chronicles
Adewole came into the first briefing the next day not knowing what to expect. "I have never served in the military," he said to the officers ringed round the table. "Jero's is entirely professional. If you join, you join for life, and it was never my ambition. I think I have hit someone perhaps twice."
"Not much for you to do in the hitting line, Professor," said Major Berger, an older, mustachioed man; cheerful lines offset his naturally melancholy eyes. "You will be translating. With your background in anthropology and languages you're our linchpin. We don't know who we're facing up there, but we face someone. Miss Goldstein's private report gives us strong reason to believe the island is inhabited. And…" He cleared his throat. "We have some confidential intelligence I trust the officers and gentlemen at this table will consider privileged: not only are there people on Inselmond, some are aware of our existence. More than that, I cannot say. Yes, Quartermaster?"
"Sir," said a grave young woman, "if there are people on the island, why haven't they tried to contact us?"
"Apart from writing on a brick and tossing it over the side, Jagels, I don't know how they could have." Jagels drew her dark brows together and dropped her eyes; Berger smiled. "It's a good question, Cam, but if a fantastical, quasi-magical society with technology far beyond our understanding is up there--" here he nodded at Adewole-- "they would have come down by now. They haven't. We must assume our technology outstrips theirs.
"Now, gentlemen and lady, we get down to it. Our primary mission is to discover the lay of the land. We need to learn the terrain, assess any possible threat, and establish relations with any government we may find. If there is none, we will prepare to establish a presence ourselves. We will be the first flight up, but the autogyros will immediately return to the ground to ferry up support troops for a base camp."
"What if the inhabitants object to us building a base camp?" said Adewole.
Major Berger smiled. "It's up to you to convince them it's best if we do, Professor. Don't worry, we're not going to threaten them," he continued at Adewole's doubtful expression. "Minister Faber has given explicit orders to use force for defense only. This is a precursor to a diplomatic mission. At present, the Inselmonders are no threat to us. We are interested in the island both for academic reasons, and for future self-defense. The government must secure its interest in the island before any other entity. We hope you will be able to secure the permissions we will need to base troops there in a friendly manner. We are relying on you, Professor."
Deviatka vanished during the day for the next three weeks, but Adewole spent the time in study and wrapping up the term. His teaching assistants could administer finals, and he would grade papers when he returned from the island. If he returned, he thought on this particular day in early Juni. The expedition, Minister Faber observing, gathered on the tarmac field adjacent to Hildegard Goldstein's workshop. Before them stood three gleaming autogyro three-seaters, two older two-seaters, and a middle-aged woman in brand-new divided-skirt coveralls. Though tall and slender, she looked more substantial than the machines, polished and twinkling as they were. Goggles hung around her neck. The straps of a funny leather cap dangled under her chin; beneath the cap, her graying blond hair twisted in a knot at her nape. Experience had left more laugh lines than frown lines on her face.
"Ladies and gentlemen," said the woman, "I am Hildegard Goldstein, and these are my babies. You will not touch them unless I say you may. In fact, you will not approach them unless I say you may. Mr. Mencken here--" she nodded to her left at an enormous man with a bristling black beard and arms like steel girders-- "will make sure you are listening to me." Adewole resolved to pay close attention. "Here's how this is going to work. We are not making a grand flight today. We're using standard water in the boiler, not black mercury. Each flight will be round the tarmac a few times at about ten feet off the ground, and then landing. Just high enough to give you a taste. Some of you will not enjoy this. That's why you will be outfitted with these." She held up a waxed paper bag.
A corporal named Wirtz held up an alarmed hand. "What are we supposed to do with them? Put them over our heads so we can't see?"
"You are supposed to barf into them," grinned Goldstein. "If you barf on one of my babies, we will have words." Her questioner turned a delicate verdigris. "You will all be going up multiple times today," continued the inventor, "and every day this week until you're desensitized to flight. By the time we're through, you'll all be pros. On these first flights, only one craft will be in the air at a time. As the days progress, we'll practice having all five fully loaded and up in the air at the same time. The pilots are practicing flying in formation already, using black mercury in the boilers to give an accurate feel." This, most of the city already knew. The five craft had buzzed over Eisenstadt at astonishing altitudes multiple times now in a loose but recognizable formation, like giant brass geese.
Goldstein clapped her hands together and gave them a rub. "So! Let's get started. Major Berger? Would you care to be the mission's first flyer?"
Minister Faber's voice surprised everyone. "I think I should like to take a little spin, Miss Goldstein, if you don't object."