Chapter 3
You Shove Off

25th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Bernecita, Constans Province, Kingdom of Byrandia

"Roise an' shoine, Blondie!" Sergeant Hight bellowed, dumping a bucket of cold water on the still naked Limpe.
"Augh! Wh, wha--!?"
The sputtering Limpe awoke in the bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of Gracie's Tavern. He would be completely naked were it not for the cap on his head and the boots on his feet.
"Mornin', Blackamoor," Root said, standing beside the tub. "You been a bad boy."
It took a moment for Limpe to fully realize what was going on.
"You, you drugged me! You'll hang for this!"
His anger had been impotent before and it was even more so now.
"I don't think so," Root said, "and if I do, you'll be swingin' right next ta me."
Limpe could not even process what Root was saying.
"What do you mean!?"
Using his fingers to illustrate, Root tallied off the charges.
"Drunk on duty, sexual misconduct, several other things we can file under the general article and probably a half-dozen local ordinances my good friend the town marshal can charge you with."
"The charges are false!" Limpe blustered. "My superiors will not stand for it!"
Root reached into his pocket, pulling out a small stack of photos, saying, "And we've also got photographic evidence of your indiscretions."
He tossed the stack of photos into the tub with Limpe. He wasn't worried about them getting wet because he had already hidden away the negatives and a couple sets of copies for safekeeping. An aghast Limpe held up the photos of himself and the Fiebre Sisters from their wild time last night.
"The Double Fiebre Special," Root said with a grin. "A local legend, you lucky dog."
"Bu, bu--"
Root took the photos out of Limpe's hands and held them over the chamber pot.
"This here," he said, waving the photos, "this can be our little secret. But there's a cost."
"A cost?"
"When your boss asks how things went last night, you're gonna tell him it was all by the numbers. And when you Blackamoors do your plottin' and your schemin' on this trip, you're gonna tell me all about it so there won't be any surprises. Do we have an understanding?"
Limpe was completely outmatched. Root almost felt sorry for the kid, but then he remembered what a little bastard he was. He repeated the question.
"Do we have an understanding?"
Bowing his head, Limpe muttered, "Yes."
Without even looking, Root said, "Sergeant?"
"'Ere ye are, Blondie," Sergeant Hight said, extending a tube of Blackamoor paint to Limpe.
Reaching out for the tube, an astonished Limpe could only ask, "How did you--?"
Sergeant Hight winked.
"We 'ave ah ways, Blondie."
Root walked to the door, looking back at Limpe and saying, "Get yourself ready to go, Blackamoor. We'll be heading out in fifteen."
Root and Sergeant Hight exited the room and Hight closed the door behind them. Looking to Root, he asked, "We got 'im, sah?"
Root nodded, grinning confidently.
"Yeah, we got him."
The two of them left Gracie's Tavern and headed to the square, where the recruits were supposed to assemble for transport to post. The familiar chime of the town's PA system sounded and the mayor's voice echoed from the dozen-plus speakers throughout town.
"Good morning, Bernecita. This is your mayor with a special announcement. Everyone who signed up for the expedition with Lieutenant Maartens, please report to the town square for pickup. The trucks will be leaving in the next ten minutes. Please don't be late and please don't try to cheat Her Majesty out of a free drink. Lieutenant Maartens asked me to remind you that he will, *ahem*, 'take it out of your asses', by which of course he means their donkeys, kids, because we have so many donkeys in town."
Root didn't think to censor his language for the sake of the impressionable youth of Bernecita, but that was why the mayor was mayor. Always thinking about the kids.
Root and Sergeant Hight continued on their way to the town square. Most of the civilians were already gathered in a disorganized cluster. Four trucks from post were waiting to load them up and Second Squad was there to escort them.
Root let Sergeant Hight get accountability for group, cross-checking them with list of volunteers. Once he had done his bit, he went back to Root to report.
"What's the headcount, Sergeant?" Root asked.
"Fifty-siven, sah," Sergeant Hight replied.
"Who're the five we're missin'?"
"We're missin' th' Fiebre Sistahs, Cale Russo, Bahn'by Smitt, an' one trav'lah, Gor'n Lee."
The four locals would be easy enough to find, but the transient might prove to be more of an issue. Still, there was no need to get too worked up just yet.
"Give 'em five minutes," Root said, "and then send Corporal Goluff to the mayor's office to make an announcement."
Almost as soon as he had finished giving Sergeant Hight the instructions, Scarlet and Ella walked up. They were dressed plainly in drab-colored dresses with off-white aprons and threadbare shawls and their hair had been let down. They looked like two perfectly normal townswomen.
"Sorry we're late, Rootie," Scarlet said. "Took us forever ta clean up ta look respectable-like."
"I don' think I've washed off all me makeup in twelve years," Ella added.
Without the benefit of dim lighting, heavy makeup and a few drinks too many, the Fiebre Sisters couldn't hide the toll of the years in their line of work. They both looked a good ten years older, worn and tired. It was a little hard for Root to see them like that.
"Even if you were military, you'd be allowed some makeup, ladies," Root said. "Just go easy on it."
Scarlet, apparently all too aware of how her true face looked, gripped her shawl anxiously.
"Well, now I need ta go back."
"There's no time," Root said. "You can get some at the shopette on post before we shove off."
"Ye shove off," Scarlett snapped. "Why's we got ta buy new makeup?"
"Go without then. We're loading up. Come on now, ladies."
Scarlet shot him a nasty glare before sulkily joining the line of people loading into the trucks. While the civilians were loading, Root could hear dogs barking. In came Barnaby Smitt and Cale Russo on a horse-drawn wagon stacked with crates for their teams of dogs, their sleds and the rest of their gear.
Root walked up to them and said, "Smitty, Cale, glad you could make it."
"Dogs was actin' ap summat fierce," Smitty replied. "Like'n dey know summat goan wrong."
"Well, I hope they can behave themselves."
"Dey lissen," Smitty said, "or'n Ah whup 'em."
He held up his whip to emphasize the point. Root wasn't especially fond of Smitty's methods, but it wasn't his place to say anything. There was no arguing with his results. He and Cale were the best dog handlers in town and they would prove invaluable up in the frozen wastes.
With Smitty and Cale's arrival, that left only one volunteer to be accounted for. Root waited a few more minutes before noting to Sergeant Hight, "Looks like that Lee's a no-show. Must've gotten cold feet."
"Want me ta send Goluff, sah?" the Sergeant asked.
Root shook his head.
"Nah, he's probably long gone and if he's still in town when we get back, we can kick his ass then for cheatin' Her Majesty outta a drink."
The last of the civilians were loaded up in the trucks and they headed out without further ado to make their way back to post. They went straight to the airstrip where the Junker Jorg was moored. Though the Junker-class were designated light cruisers, they appeared huge to the uninitiated, over a hundred meters in length and over five kilotonnes to her unloaded. It was a wonder it could even fly, but even an impressive piece of machinery like this was not the biggest bird in the sky. The legendary Imperial Grand Phoenix of the Tung was said to be ten times the Junker Jorg's size, but as they say, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
After helping get all the civilians offloaded, Sergeant Hight and Second Squad fell in with the rest of their section. The other volunteers from post fell in with them and while a few other soldiers and airmen were trying to get the civilians in some semblance of a formation behind them.
Root went to take his place at the head of the not-quite formed up formation. That Blackamoor Centurion was waiting for him with a lean, sunken-eyed Blackamoor he had not yet had the displeasure of meeting. What was a stack of two straight silver arrows and one gold supposed to be? The Centurion strutted forward, looking thoroughly unimpressed with what he saw.
"So this is what you bring me, Lieutenant?" the Centurion said.
"Sixty-one men and women plus the thirty-four from post," Root replied.
"Forty-four, Lieutenant," the Centurion corrected, eyeing ten people being marched in by a couple of his goons. "I found a few others in need of some added discipline."
The ten new additions fell in with the volunteers and the Blackamoor goons hustled over to their formation. Without another word, the Centurion turned and made his way up the ship's loading ramp. The unit leader for the Blackamoors began barking commands and their formation followed. Before Root marched his bunch onboard, he was approached by the Commandant with Trish at her side. The Commandant was a woman of few words and now was no different.
"I expect you to take care of our people out there."
"I'll do everything in my power, ma'am."
"I trust you will. Carry on."
"By your leave, ma'am."
The Commandant turned to walk away, but Trish remained. No longer in the presence of a superior officer, Root eased out of the position of attention.
"Well, Trish," he said, "we're about to board. Don't worry about Margie. I've got her assigned to the mess. It's not the most glamorous work, but she should be able to stay outta sight and outta trouble."
"Take care of yourself too, Root," Trish said.
"Don't worry about me."
Trish bowed her head slightly.
"But I do," she said. "We... we have some stuff we need to talk about when you get back."
Throwing caution and military bearing to the wind, Trish took hold of Root's lapels and drew him in for a kiss. Though he flirted with her and they had dated after a fashion for a couple months now, this was the first time they had ever kissed. Root was so taken by surprise that he didn't really get to savor the moment. It was over almost as quickly as it began, a short, awkward amateur's kiss. There were some catcalls from Second Section behind them. Thank God the Blackamoors were gone.
Still clutching his lapels, Trish looked up at him with eyes brimming on the verge of tears.
"Come back safe, Root," she said. Managing a weak grin, she added, "And don't sleep with those whores while you're away."
Root returned her smile sympathetically and said, "Okay. See you when I get back."
Wiping her eyes, Trish walked away. Root watched her go for a moment, but then remembered what he was supposed to be doing. He adjusted his jacket, went to the position of attention, did a smart about-face, and bellowed, "Fall in! Double file! That's two columns, civvies! Military up front, civilians in back!"
The military members of the group were quicker about lining up than the civilians, but it didn't take them long to get into two lines they were loading into Nuh's Box-boat. Once they were properly formed up, he went into the pre-boarding briefing.
"When you come aboard, you'll be met by a naval officer. This is the Officer of the Deck. You don't come on or get off without going through him first. Have your orders and ID papers ready. Military, salute the ensign--that's the flag--as you come up. You then approach the Officer of the Deck, stand at attention, salute, say your name and rank, and then, 'I request permission to come aboard, sir.' He'll ask your purpose and you'll say, 'Temporarily assigned to the crew.' The Officer of the Deck will check your papers and when he says 'Permission granted,' You go up a ways and form up on the quarterdeck--that's where you come on. Four ranks, twelve across, close interval.
"Civilians, pretty much the same deal, just don't worry about saluting. I'll be there to make sure everyone gets on board without any trouble. Sub-Lieutenant LeGrange will be making sure everyone forms up right. Any questions?"
"No, sir!" the assembly shouted in unison, though perhaps not with uniform volume and enthusiasm.
That was about as good as Root could hope for. All that was left was to get things started.
"Alright then," he said. "For-ward, march!"
And so began the long ordeal of boarding 106 individuals--counting Root himself. Thankfully, the Officer of the Deck was quick and efficient and even with a few flubs along the way, the whole group was processed in half an hour.
Once the last person was cleared and fell into formation, Root went up to the front of the formation to relieve Sub-Lieutenant LeGrange. They exchanged salutes and the LeGrange went to take up his place in the first rank and file.
A sailor shouted, "Captain on deck!"
In plodded a thickset example of the pride of the Royal Navy, flabby and sluggish with droopy blue eyes and a bad combover. He was flanked by a young adjutant, the Centurion, and that skinny goon from before who must have been the Centurion's own adjutant. The Captain stood in front of the formation, surveying them for a moment before greeting them, saying, "Welcome to the Junker Jorg. I'm the captain of the ship, Frigate Captain Sir Leonid Romsky. We've had quite the time getting all the way up here with such a small crew, so we welcome all the help we can get. Centurion Tofels of the Blackamoors will be acting as my Executive Officer, so he will be handling most of the day-to-day business. Your orders should tell you your assigned berthing space and where you report. If you have any questions, you can ask my adjutant, Major Pulver here. We expect this expedition to only last about a week. Again, welcome. Carry on."
The Captain then left with Tofels and his adjutant at his heels, leaving Major Pulver behind. Major Pulver seemed to come from similar circumstances as Margie, someone with noble blood who didn't make officer for whatever reason and was given an unwarranted subofficer rank to compensate. Major Pulver, at least, seemed to have talent beyond serving tea and was actually quite knowledgeable about the ship, quickly and courteously answering questions as people filtered down below decks.
Once everyone else was in their designated berthing space, Root allowed Major Pulver to show him to his room. It was a tiny thing, two-by-three at most, but pretty standard for ships by air and by sea.
"I'm sorry to say it's not much, sir," the Major said.
"No worries, kid," Root replied. "Three hots and a cot is all a guy in this man's Army can hope for, right? We do get three hots, don't we?"
"We should be able to keep the meals warm at least, sir. I can't make any guarantees about the taste, though."
"Well, I've never held out much hope for the taste of Army chow, and I'm not expectin' much from you Navy folks either."
"It's probably just as well that you moderate your expectations, sir." Major Pulver replied. "Will you be needing anything else?"
"No, I should be fine."
Major Pulver delivered a little bow, more like he was a butler of some high-class estate than part of an airship's crew.
"Very well then, sir. I'll be making the rounds, so I won't be far if I'm needed. By your leave, sir."
Root waved the Major off and went to stowing his gear. He then changed out of his service dress and into the more comfortable field dress. Although the previous night's antics left him rather tired, he could catch a little rest after they were underway. In the meantime, it would be a good idea to take a cue from Major Pulver and be making the rounds himself. He had to do his bit to make sure everyone was squared away. Getting them to their berths was just the beginning of the huge task before him.
After hanging up his service dress uniform in the narrow closet at the foot of his bunk, Root stepped out of the room and was met by a naval officer he hadn't met before.
"Hello there," the officer said.
"Hello, uh..."
"Corvette Captain Sir John Saxon," the officer replied, "the former XO of this flying brick. Thanks to Mad Mal's meddling, I've been busted down to navigator for this cruise. Don't worry, though, when that blackfaced young punk gets in over his head, I'll be there to keep the JJ afloat."
Captain Saxon couldn't be more different from Captain Romsky. Though a stout man, there was a vigor to him. He was the kind of man you would make statues of. It was odd because Root never thought about officers that way, but there was something about this one.
Captain Saxon extended his hand and Root accepted it and introduced himself.
"Lieutenant Rutger Maartens, sir, formerly operations officer at the airbase HQ. That blackfaced young punk who snatched your job put me in charge of this crowd. I haven't been on a Navy ship since I came home from Marsouk, so I'll appreciate any cooperation seein' that things go smoothly for everyone."
The Captain had a strong grip, the kind you would expect from an enlisted man rather than an officer, and he gave Root's arm a couple firm pumps.
"Long as everyone does their job, we shouldn't have a problem," Captain Saxon said.
"Let's hope so," Root replied.
"I'm sure that kid Pulver put himself at your service and, by all means, use him for all he's worth, but also feel free to come to me if there are any issues."
"I will. Thank you, sir."
"Carry on."
Root nodded.
"By your leave, sir."
Captain Saxon went one way and Root went the other. There was a lot of work to be done.