The next morning broke cold and clear. A thick beading of dew had settled on the tower and the six survivors spent a few minutes lapping at the splintery wood with raw tongues to try to eke out what moisture they could. It wasn’t enough. Tom was lightheaded, his lips were chapped and bleeding and his throat felt like it was packed with sand.
None of the nearby towers showed signs of life, but at least the Draggers seemed to have moved on. Laughter still echoed in the distance, but it was quiet around their tower. Better yet, gaps had started to form in the Mist below, not big enough for anyone to dare leaving the tower, but a welcome sight nonetheless. It was the airship port that gave them the most concern. Except for a pall of smoke it was nearly empty. Only one airship remained, and it swung with the breeze with a single guyline holding it in place. If anyone aboard was still alive they surely would have fled, or at least secured the zeppelin with more lines. As it was the tail swung dangerously close to a neighbouring mooring-tower every time the breeze shifted to the east.
“Myrmidon’s gone and left without us.” Giles stared at the abandoned port.
“Hey, maybe we lucky mate. We could have a ship of our own.” Oleg scratched his chin and gazed toward the remaining zeppelin.
“Looks a little old and worn. Probably broke down an’ they abandoned it.”
“Ship’s a ship. I wouldn’ turn down a free one.”
Tom joined the two former crew-mates. “If you can even get there. It’s at least a mile and a half away, on the opposite side of town. Somebody else’ll probably take it.”
Oleg dug his fingernails harder into his chin. “Then we’ve gotta get there first, right mates?”
Giles nodded. “Mist’s clearin’ up nice out there. If we wait ‘till it’s mostly gone an’ make a run, I bet we can get there first.”
“Thought you were scared of the Mist?” Tom prodded Giles in the ribs.
“No, not I… it, err, just caught me by surprise last night is all.”
“I say we get ready. Way the mist is clearin’ we can probably go in a few minutes.” Oleg narrowed his eyes. “Comin’ Tom?”
“Me? I thought you didn’t trust me?”
“I trust ye well enough once the girlies are outta the picture. Give ye a share in ‘er, whaddaya say?”
Tom shrugged. “Dunno…. Who’s going to protect the girls?”
Agatha shook her head. “I can protect myself if Oaf-leg would just give me my damn gun back.”
Oleg grinned at her. “Not a chance sweetie. Gonna need it if there are any Draggers left about after the Mist clears.” He turned to Tom. “Twenty percent, final offer. We can crew her with two, but three’d lighten the load.”
It was tempting. Twenty percent of even an old airship would be more money than Tom had seen his whole life. “No...” Tom looked over at Nikki and Willow, still huddled in their corner, “I’ll stay till they sound all clear.”
“Suit yerself. More for us.” Oleg glanced through the hatch. Mist still hung in clumps across the charred remains of Milton, but if they moved quickly they could make it.
Giles took a knotted rope from the emergency supplies in the tower, tied it off and dropped it through the hatch. He punched Tom in the shoulder. “Sorry ‘bout chokin’ ye boy. You’re an all-right lad.” He swung over the side and began his descent.
Oleg checked the revolver and let his companion hit the ground before he followed with a brief grunt of farewell.
Tom saw the Mist react nearly as soon as the two men hit the ground. The nearby clumps started to drift toward Oleg and Giles, but they outran it easily. They disappeared between rows of charred buildings and were gone.
A movement below caught Tom’s eye. He glanced down into the upturned face of a Dragger. The Dragger chuckled softly, looked up, straight into Tom’s eyes and winked. Then he darted after the departed airmen, followed by several other Draggers.
“Ah hell.” Tom cupped his hands. “Oleg, look out! Draggers on your trail! Oleg! Look out behind you!”
A moment later two gunshots split the air, and the Draggers broke into full throated laughter. There was a scream, cut off sharply, and then silence again.
“Told ‘im he was a lousy shot.” Agatha grinned at Tom. “You heard me.”
“Not amusin’ Agatha.” Tom gritted his teeth. “They were right asses, but men all the same. Nobody should go like that.”
Agatha squinted back at Tom. “Yet year after year more die that way. Good men and bad alike, it don’t matter. Mist’ll cover everything one day the rate it’s goin’. Soon we’ll probably all die, just like them.”
Nikki curled her arms protectively around her sister. “Stop it! Just stop it!” She sobbed against Willow’s dark curls.
“Hey, it’s all right.” Tom walked over and put a hand on Nikki’s shoulder. “We’ll get out of this.”
Nikki sniffed, her eyes red and puffy. “Our parents are out there.”
Willow nodded. “They were. I think they’re gone now Nikki.”
“Oh!” Nikki held her sister close. “Don’t say that Willow. There’s still a chance.”
Agatha shook her head. “I think Willow’s right. There’s nary a sign of intelligent life out there. We’re on our own.”
Tom blew out a breath. “Then maybe Oleg was right too.” He leaned over the rail, scanning the ground below for signs of Draggers. Down slope from Milton the Mist seemed to be gathering for another push upwards.
Agatha raised an eyebrow. “What? That oaf?”
“We’re all hungry, and another day up here, waiting for the mist to clear is pretty much going to wipe us out thirst-wise. Looks like the Mist may be gathering for another push, so who knows how long we may have to wait for another shot. If the town is wiped out, our only chance is the airship, and we gotta go now.”
Agatha shook her head. “You even know how to fly that thing?”
“No… I was low on the crew, they rarely even let me on the bridge. But it can’t be that hard right?”
Nikki snorted. “There’s about fifty dials, a dozen levers and perhaps two or three dozen buttons and switches. Some of ‘em will be labelled, but if the pilot’s had ‘er for a few years, it’s likely most of ‘em are not. If it’s a foreign airship they may not even be marked in English. Even so, would you know what to do with a lever marked ‘right aileron’? Can you even read a chart?”
Tom shook his head.
Nikki got to her feet. “Then you need me ‘an Willow. I can fly her, Willow knows air charts.”
Willow tucked Sir Furrybottom under her arm. “Right, you need us.”
“Looks like…. What do you say Agatha? Join us?”
Agatha nodded. “We should try for my gun, in case there are more Draggers around.”
“Agreed.” Tom peered over the side at the mist. There were still patches clinging to the scorched buildings below, but not many. Far down slope though, the mist boiled upwards, clawing its way toward Milton for a second round. Tom whistled under his breath. This wasn’t how Mist was supposed to behave. Once most of the people were dead the Mist always retreated, taking the Draggers with it. They never came back for just a few stragglers.
“I’ll drop down first. Rest of you follow, fast as you can.” Tom grabbed the rope and slithered over the side, scampering easily to the ground. The dead Draggers there were starting to smell. He looked around and cocked an ear for laughter, but there was no sound. “All clear!” He looked up to see Agatha half-way down, climbing almost as quickly as he had.
“Catch!” Willow stuck her head through the trap door and tossed Sir Furrybottom down.
Tom snagged the bear with a grin. “Welcome aboard yer knightliness. You wouldn’t happen to have a sword, or some kinda weapon to go with the title would you?” The bear didn’t respond. “Yeah… thought not.”
Agatha alit beside him. “Who you talkin’ to?”
“Oh… ahem, nobody.” Tom tucked the bear beneath his arm.
“You were talking to the bear, weren’t you?”
Tom grinned sheepishly. “Uhh, no... ‘course not.”
Agatha groaned. “I can’t believe I’m following an idiot who talks to toys.”
Willow dropped to the ground and retrieved her bear. Nikki followed close behind.
“Ready?” Tom gave them a once-over. Nikki had his jacket on still, she wrapped her arms around herself as if she was cold in spite of it, Willow hugged her bear tightly, and Agatha stood loose, like an athlete preparing for a run.
“Your friends went that way.” Agatha pointed up an alley.
Tom nodded. “I’ll take lead. Then Willow and Nikki, Agatha, you take rear-guard.”
They quickly fell in line and Tom set off at a quick walk toward the point where they had lost track of Oleg and Giles.
At the intersection, Willow pointed to the right. “That way.”
It seemed right to Tom, so he led them up the road. It wasn’t long before they came across Oleg’s body. There wasn’t much left to identify him by, but the gun belt and Agatha’s revolver. Tom’s knife lay on the ground nearby so he picked it up and wiped it clean of blood on Oleg’s pants while Agatha retrieved her weapon. There was no sign of Giles.
Tom heard laughter in the distance. “Let’s get goin’.”
Agatha dropped a final round into the revolver and shut the loading gate.
“Keep the same order as before.” Tom set out at a light run this time, but the laughter drew nearer. It echoed between remnants of the buildings, making it seem to come from all directions at once.
Tom increased the pace until Willow could barely keep up. They rounded a corner and a figure burst from behind the corner of a building. Nikki screamed. The sun was at its back, partly obscuring the face.
Tom recognized him anyhow. “Shit Giles, you scared the crap out of me!”
Giles just laughed in response. He bared his teeth and approached them, mouth stretched into a wicked smirk.
Tom whipped out his knife as Dragger-Giles charged.
From behind he heard Agatha shout, “More comin’ from behind!” Then a series of evenly spaced gunshots.
Tom lunged forward, slashing Giles deeply across the arm, but the former Airman ignored the wound, and with unnatural speed grabbed Tom by the throat.
Another slash across Giles’s belly spilled a mass of hot organs across Tom as he fell backwards under the heavier man, but did nothing to slow the beast. Spots and sparkles drifted before Tom’s eyes as he flailed madly with the knife. The smell of his father’s breath came up in Tom’s memory again, and rage enveloped him, but it wasn’t enough. Giles had manhandled Tom before, and as a Dragger he was twice as strong. Finally in desperation Tom thrust his knife as deeply into Dragger-Giles’s belly as he could, angling upwards.
Giles gasped, and his grip weakened. His eyes went vacant for a moment, then it was him, the real Giles again. His breath was rapid and shallow and a look of desperation came over him. “Sorry ‘bout chokin’ you ‘gain…” He coughed up blood, “seem to be doin’ that a lot lately.” Then he sighed and sagged in Tom’s arms.
Tom withdrew the knife, and rolled Giles to the side. He got to his feet, quivering and unsteady. His stomach lurched, trying to give back what wasn’t there. Tom choked back the bile and fought to steady his nerves.
At his shoulder Agatha whistled low. “Maybe you’re not useless after all. I cleared ‘em up behind, but there’s more on the way.”
After passing Giles’s knife to Nikki, Tom set out again. The laughter of Draggers followed them closely, never gaining or falling behind, but increasing in volume and intensity with every step. By the time they reached the airship yard Tom figured there must be a hundred of them.
They burst into the open space of the port and saw it was strewn with the wreckage of zeppelins. Most were mangled beyond recognition, but Tom caught sight of a stretch of fuselage he recognized as Myrmidon’s. He paused for a moment in shock. Nearly everyone he had known for the past two years would have been aboard.As they picked their way through the wreckage toward the mooring tower for the one zeppelin still in the air the Draggers burst from between buildings. They poured from streets and alleys into the tangled mess of smouldering airships and howled with laughter at the sight of their prey.