Scrimp and save and make the time to enjoy one of Europa's most colorful methods of travel. Imperial scientists have been unable to explain why there should be such large deposits of nonflammable helium on a planet with no petroleum or other fossil fuels. Whatever the reason Europa has the largest number of commercial and private airships in the Empire. Everything from hobbyist dirigibles with a single gasbag to the giants designed off planet and made on Europa can be found in her skies. Take the time and slip between the clouds on one of these stately leviathans. You'll be glad you did.
Fodor's Guide To Europa, 85th Edition
Dawn Summers slipped down the darkening street. In her mind the gathering shadows seemed ominous as they swallowed the light. The people she passed on the street only saw a farm girl. They passed unaware of the danger she knew she carried with her for everyone. Finally she arrived at 14 Parkstrasse just as true night fell. She knocked on the door and waited. A moment later the grill opened up and an old face looked out the door through the wrought iron grill. Dawn recognized the habit of a Sister of Charity from her mother's work with the order.
"Good evening," the woman said.
"I'm Joyce Summers' daughter," Dawn said softly.
The woman looked at her with a brief flash of surprise and then opened the heavy door.
Dawn hurried inside as the nun locked and then barred the door. As she lead the girl into the convent she saw the new novice, Drusilla.
"Please watch the door, but do not unlatch it for anyone until I return," the older nun said earnestly.
"Yes, Sister," Drusilla answered.
The novice went to the now barred door and opened the grill so the light from inside could be seen in the street. She tried to reach up and close it but couldn't.
"You're a very bad girl," she whispered harshly to herself as she looked helplessly at her unmoving hand.
A man's face was framed in the grill. He looked down at for a moment and then spoke as if reading something.
"You're a very nasty, very dirty girl," he said. "Be a good girl and open the door."
"No," Drusilla whimpered. "Sister said..."
"Does she know how bad you are?" the man read.
Images of horrible things flashed through the young woman's mind along with the distinct impression that she liked what she was doing. She trembled and clenched her hands.
"Open the door and be a good girl," the figure at the door repeated.
"They're going in," Travers said flatly. "You can stop."
"But it is so much fun," Tyrrell drawled.
Travers looked across the coach at his companion. The odd man's eyes were distant and bright at the same time. The smile he wore was a nightmare version of satisfaction.
"Do you have to use that... alkaloid?" Travers asked tersely.
"Only to function," came the reply. Then the younger man flinched. "Coming... somebody..."
"The border," Travers ordered the coachman. "And hurry."
"You've got to go back, Miss Summers," Alexander said with a whispered urgency. "This is a job for the police or the army."
"That does sound like something Mr. Giles would say," Anya agreed. "He's very smart, and kind of sexy in a way."
"No!" Buffy hissed back.
"Well, if you like older men-" Anya insisted.
"I meant no police," Buffy said quickly. "This way no one has to be official. I know what I'm doing."
"But-" Alexander started.
"Look, Alex," Willow said in calming tone. "You watch our backs and if we need help you get help, okay?"
"If you say so, Miss Rosenberg," the young man said doubtfully.
"Start here," Buffy said brusquely. "Wait by this tree."
Alexander watched the three women walk down the street to the door with the grill.
"Please, Miss," the young woman on the other side of the grill almost whined. "You don't understand. You should go away."
"I have to see the mother superior," Buffy insisted.
"Now, please!" Buffy said urgently.
The bolt clinked back in the door and Buffy applied her shoulder to make sure the door opened. The young woman fell backward.
"Buffy!" Willow hissed. "Don't abuse nuns! It's bad... uhh, it's just bad!"
Buffy looked past Willow with wide eyes. The redhead turned and saw a man where men weren't supposed to be, especially men with guns. She saw the pistol buck and felt a distant sting followed by a wave of cold that pulled her down into darkness.
A lean man felt the pulse of the unconscious redhead. The sliver of compressed anesthetic had worked well. The compressed gas mechanism had proven itself reliable after all, as had the area spray. So far there had been no fatalities, which is what the team had been briefed to do.
"What about the other subjects?" the team scout asked. "Eliminate or take?"
"Take all of them," the team leader said as he straightened up. "They may be useful. Get that animal powered transport pod ready."
Alexander watched as a delivery van pulled into place. The horses relaxed in their harness as the deliveryman leapt out of the wagon. The young man froze as the wind caught his coat and the dull black of a large off planet personal weapon showed for an instant. Then he opened the door with the grill and went in.
"That's not the way it's done," Alexander whispered to himself.
With his heart pounding Alex snuck closer to the door. He finally got there and saw a tiny box on the frame of the door. He leaned forward and through the grill caught the briefest sight of Willow being placed in a box. He crouched and got ready to spring. Then he remembered Willow's words.
"You watch our backs and if we need help you get help, okay?"
"Connelly, watch the door," someone inside said. "We've got a maglev to catch."
"I put a camera up... oh shit," another voice said. "Stupid planet."
Alexander pulled back from the door and hurried down the street as quietly as he could. When he turned the corner he paused for a second. The men were off-worlders, with advanced weapons. This needed more than the police. He ran for the Palace as fast as he could. He never saw the very large nuns take four boxes to the delivery van.
Cordelia Chase paced in the custom car of the Special at her disposal. She had been told her friends would be arriving soon by the rather unpleasant if perfectly groomed Aquitaine officer who sat primly on an overstuffed chair. She knew he was a soldier because only a soldier would wear a civilian suit like a uniform. A moment later the door opened and she caught a glimpse of the enormous man guarding the door. Then another soldier trying to pass marched into the room.
"They are here," the man with an Oldenberg accent said without preamble.
"Where?" Cordelia asked as she darted to the window.
She saw a box being opened and then a limp form was pulled roughly out. She saw Willow tossed across a man's shoulder like a side of meat. The slim redhead wasn't moving. She turned back to the men in horror.
"What happened to them?" she asked in a frightened voice.
"This," the Aquitaine soldier sneered pointing a strange pistol at her.
The weapon gave a chuffing sound and something stung her in the stomach. She clutched herself and whimpered as the floor rushed up to meet her. Capitaine Bernelle pointed the weapon at the unmoving girl.
"No!" snapped Leutnant Klems. "Our orders say alive. Another dart might kill her."
"How do you know that?" Bernelle asked curtly.
"I read the operator's manual," Klems replied.
"What if they wake up in transit?" the French officer asked. "These things only last for less than an hour."
"We'll have to use the old fashioned method to keep them in line," Klems said with a grim smile.
Tara looked up with alarm as the doors burst open in the King's private library. Alexander followed by a footman and a guard staggered into the room out of breath.
"He was saying something about Dawn and Buffy being captured," the guard explained quickly to the King.
"Captured?" Randolph roared.
"I have men investigating now, sir," the guard said ashen as he saluted.
"Maglev," panted the young man. "They're... taking them... boxes... maglev."
"And you ran away without trying to help?" Liam asked angrily. His next words were stopped by Giles' hand on his arm. Alexander looked away, ashamed.
"What?" the chancellor asked. "What kind of boat is that?"
"It's a train," Tara said quickly. "An electric train."
"We have no such thing," the old man replied.
"But if you're used to calling trains maglevs then all trains are maglevs," Riley explained.
"Call the rail station," the King ordered as more people arrived. "Stop all trains."
"Sir, we can't find-the guests," another footman reported breathlessly. "We did find this."
The King snatched a perfectly folded square of paper from the servant and read it. "Damn fool girl," he muttered as he handed the paper to William. Tara leaned to read the message and William let her as he read aloud for the rest of them.
"Hello," he read. "I'm not sure how to address this. To whom it may concern seems to cold and naming someone would be presuming so I'm sorry it's not a proper salutation. Dawn has run off and Buffy says we can't let this become a public incident. Anya is coming with us. Take care. (signed) Miss Willow Rosenberg. P.S. To the correct person who knows who they are I promise I'll be careful."
You'd better be! Tara thought worriedly.
"Sir!" a soldier in a messenger's uniform said urgently. "We can't get through to Morlaix! The telegraph wires are down!"
"Sir, the police report a Special pulled out of the depot two minutes ago!" came from another guard. "We can't raise the switching stations. The telegraphs seem to be down."
"We've lost," Randolph said distantly as he slumped into a chair.
"Can't we go after them?" Tara asked desperately. "Something else has got to be faster. What about an airplane?"
"We can't fly at night," William explained. "Not accurately at least."
"There's one thing that might," Riley said suddenly.
"What?" Liam asked.
"All airships carry rescue equipment, correct?" Riley asked Giles.
"Yes, it's part of the Airship Treaty of-" the librarian started.
"Are you Evac qualified?" Riley asked Tara urgently.
"Y-Yes," Tara replied.
"When did you last do a tether drop lead qualification?" he asked looking at the map.
"Five months ago," Tara said wondering what this was leading to.
"More recent than me," Riley muttered. "All right, I'm going to get some stuff from my room. Write a message warning the Bishopric, then seal it up in a protective tube and get-"
"Alex," Giles interjected.
"Yeah," Riley agreed. "He made the right decision by getting help. Get him a messenger pouch. Have the car brought around."
"We can't catch them in the car!" William exclaimed.
"It's to get us to the diplomatic airship," Riley said quickly. "Let's move, people!"
Capitaine Bernelle smoothed out his uniform and pulled the sword belt into the perfect position. Leutnant Klems tested the draw of his sword and nodded. The four off-worlders looked on with raised eyebrows. Anya moaned softly.
"Shall we secure them, sir?" the scout asked.
"No," sneered Bernelle.
"They are just women," Klems snorted.
"I know," the team leader shuddered. Then he shook his head. "Our local officers say no."
I must remember to kick whoever came up with this plan very hard, he added to himself.
Tara looked at the enormous shape above her as the car stopped at the airfield. A gray, stately shape was held down by impossibly thin ropes. The slightly flattened oval of the width of the semi-rigid vessel made it look even bigger from the ground. She could almost swear the steady thrum of the bio-diesel driven engines sounded like anti-grav generators. She followed Riley and the Prince up the narrow gangway to the first gondola of the craft with the other men behind her. The pistol at her side seemed too familiar. For a second she was running across a bright, barren piece of earth helping a wounded Marine. Then the smell of the horses pulling at a winch brought her back to the now.
Ahead of her she saw the Captain, she supposed, of the airship salute the Prince. The Captain looked at the orders and frowned. He stepped into the fragile looking gondola and the rest followed him. Tara marveled briefly at the elegant touches of metal and woodwork around her. Her attention turned back to the Captain as he stopped by the controls of the airship.
"This is impossible!" the Captain rumbled. "This is not a nimble little rescue blimp! This is a S class semi-rigid, built for speed."
"So we can catch the train and beat the raiders to Morlaix," William replied. "Captain, if we don't it could mean Europa at war."
"Very well," the Captain said unhappily. "Chief, get these people back to the Rescue Station and make ready. Helm, stand to. I'm taking her on this suicide mission."
"Aye, sir!" the twenty year-old airman snapped as he stood up from his station.
"All right, Your Highness, go with the Chief while I catch this train of yours," the officer said as he sat in the vacant seat. "Emergency speed, engineer! Prepare for hard lift, say again, hard lift!"
Three harsh chimes sounded and the crew secured themselves as the sound of the engines increased to a roar. The Captain pushed the controls ahead. Tara held onto the rope handrail in the passage to the gondola's rear door as the floor beneath her tilted with the takeoff. Two beefy looking air crewmen started to prepare a large winch as Riley talked to the Chief about what was planned. Tara told herself the older man's shaking head wasn't a bad sign. She kept her mind focused on the ropes and webbing in front of her. She wove her own rig and then readied the Prince. Riley was doing the same for Liam. Tara tried not to think of the last time she'd tether dropped ahead of her clerk.
It had seemed so easy the first two times. She'd used a spider silk canister with an automatic dispenser attached to a Vacc Suit. Tara had used the reticule on a heads up display to judge the distance and called her instructions to her follower. It was almost fun. Then the trainers had taken away the Vacc Suit and she'd tied an uncomfortable seat of webbing around her and her follower. No auto tensioners, no soft brake, just rope and carabiners and a hand held line with an auto piton to secure the anchor point. She'd passed, but only by one point. If Kami hadn't been wearing an anti-gravity harness for a training safety rule she would have smacked into Tara. Tara looked at the gear quickly. The standard anchor was an auto piton, but those devices used an electric charge to weld into any surface.
"What's our anchor?" she asked anxiously.
"Glue post," Riley answered.
"Better and better," mumbled Tara unhappily.
As Riley Finn had described it tether dropping was almost like flying. William knew it was a standard of escaping stalled or drifting anti-grav vehicles or failing structures. People even used it in space. To him the concept seemed like a carry over from the days when parachuting soldiers had been an elite. Even that old technology was part of Evacuation training in the Empire. Tonight he would be behind Tara on one of the lines she was preparing since he was closest to her weight of the three of them.
William looked at the deep concentration on the face of the young woman he was entrusting his life to and felt a little better as she carefully set up her equipment. William imagined Tara being lowered through the night as she flew her body into position on the train where she would secure the glue post, fire the mixing charge to bring the two components of the incredibly strong glue together and stick it to a surface on the train's roof.
And I know she'll look graceful doing it, he thought. He shook away the thought. She'd be a student here for years. There'd be plenty of time.
"You won't get away with this," Cordelia growled as Buffy helped her into a chair.
"I rather think we shall," Capitaine Bernelle replied lazily.
"My father-" she snapped.
"Is well in hand," Klems laughed.
"What are you going to do with us?" Dawn asked miserably.
"Shoot your sister if you try anything," the Oldenberg officer said evenly.
"Why are you doing this?" Buffy asked. "You're from Oldenberg."
"Because the Prince is a fool who doubted my honor!" Klems snapped. "Instead of standing by his officer he took the side of that French trollop. It took me six years to make captain and he took that away!"
"Was she right?" Willow asked.
"It doesn't matter!" Klems answered angrily.
"She was," Willow said quietly.
Klems answer was a backhanded blow the girl didn't see coming. The other girls leapt to their feet as the Oldenberg officer stepped back with a smirk on his face. Willow straightened up in her chair and glared at him until Dawn blocked her view before Klems turned around
"Now sit back unless you wish to be tied for the reminder of your trip home," Bernelle said with an evil grin. Then he looked back at Klems.
"The redhead first," Klems muttered.
Tara was looking at the coils of rope one more time when she felt a stab of fear and anger that somehow felt like Willow. She stood up and looked down at a winking light below them.
"There they are!" she called out as she pointed at the train below them.
"She's right!" Liam added.
"Target sighted!" the Chief called into the speaking tube.
A moment later everyone felt the dirigible lower its nose. The lights below them grew slowly larger. Tara could feel Willow's fear and anger more strongly. She pulled on her goggles and helmet as she hurried to the hatchway.
"Hold on," Tara whispered into the night. "I'm coming."
I'm coming Tara said earnestly.
Willow had heard it, she was sure. But no one else seemed to notice.
"Lead ready?" Riley called out over the roar of the engines and the howl of the greedy wind.
"Lead ready!" Tara answered. Her fears were gone. Willow, and the others, needed her. She braced in the door. She felt Riley give one last quick check.
"Play out the line in four, three, two, one-" she heard him call out to the aircrew at the winch. "Now!"
Tara leapt into the night.