“Go, go!” Tom pointed toward the tower where the last surviving airship floated. He ushered Nikki and Willow past and paced beside Agatha in the rear. The name Hecate was printed on the bow of the airship, and it floated with only the bow-line keeping it from drifting away on the breeze. The only way to get to the bridge would be to climb the tower, traverse the steel bow-line and climb down the rigging on the underside of the envelope to the gondola. No problem for him, and he was confident Agatha could do it, but Tom worried about Nikki and Willow.
Agatha turned every few paces and blasted a shot at the Draggers, reloading on the run. Every shot found its mark, but far from thinning their ranks, with those still pouring out of the streets the Draggers grew more numerous by the second.
Ahead the two sisters had reached the tower. They scampered up the ladder with Tom and Agatha not far behind. When they reached the top, Willow and Nikki paused.
Tom rushed past them. “No time for explanations, just watch what I do and follow!”
He lay flat on the cable and dangled one leg below. Pulling with his arms and pushing with the other leg, he quickly shimmied across the makeshift bridge to the envelope. Then Tom swung to the rigging underneath and scrambled clear. Willow and Nikki had some difficulty, but made it across, and Agatha came last. By that time the Draggers had nearly made it to the top of the ladder. Agatha turned, dangling from the rigging, and pulled out her revolver.
>Boom< >Boom< Two shots, two Draggers dropped from the ladder, the second swept several beneath him from the rungs as he fell.
“Come with me, we gotta get this thing moving!” Tom tugged on Nikki’s arm. She followed as he guided her along the rigging underneath Hecate’s envelope. More shots echoed behind them as they climbed. When they reached the walkway surrounding Hecate’s gondola, Tom swung down easily and helped Nikki.
“Release the guyline and get us moving!” He pushed her toward the bridge, and Nikki rushed to obey.
With a thump, Agatha landed next to him.
“Where’s Willow?” Tom turned toward the rigging just as her scream cut the air.
“I can’t make it!” Willow had jammed her elbow through a hole in the rigging and clung to her stupid bear as she dangled there like bait for the Draggers.
The Draggers for their part were swarming up all sides of the tower now, mostly ignoring the ladder. Many of them fell, but that didn’t do anything to slow the mob down. The first had nearly reached the guyline.
Agatha dumped her spent casings on Hecate’s deck and hastily reloaded. “Three shots left!”
“Make ‘em count!” Tom turned behind them and pounded on the glass of the Hecate’s bridge. “Release the guyline!”
Nikki was frantically fiddling with controls inside, she looked at him with panic in her eyes. “Broken! It’s all busted up in here!”
“Oh shit. Agatha, cover me, I’m going for Willow.” Tom swung back on to the rigging and clambered toward the frightened girl.
>Boom< A shot whizzed past Tom and missed every single Dragger. Deadeye Agatha sure picked a bad time to lose her nerve. He climbed on, hoping her second shot would be better.
>Boom< Another clean miss. What the hell was she shooting at? She must have been shaking with fear. Not that it mattered, three Draggers more or less wouldn’t make much difference.
>Boom< One Dragger made it on to the rigging as Agatha’s third shot blasted past. Tom scrambled toward Willow, trying to beat the beast there.
“Could have at least shot that one,” he muttered under his breath.
More Draggers were trying to make it across to Hecate, but instead of climbing across the cable they were jumping and falling. Tom didn’t have time to figure it out, he scrambled for Willow, reaching her just before the Dragger woman.
Tom stuck an elbow and a knee into the rigging and drew his knife. The Mist-possessed woman took no precautions against falling, she scrambled, upside-down across the rigging and leapt the last few yards to grab Tom around the waist.
The move caught him by surprise, and Tom’s grip on his knife slipped. He made a snatch for it and missed, watched it spin away beneath him, glinting in the sun. The woman had an iron grip around him and she hugged him close. Tom was just counting his stars, he could probably hold on long enough for Agatha to come help, and with her hands tied up the Dragger wouldn’t be able to do much more damage. Then she leaned in to him, like a lover, and bit deeply into his chest muscle.
Tom screamed. The Dragger’s teeth cut through skin and muscle. She pulled her head back, tearing a ragged hunk of flesh away. Out of the corner of his eye, Tom saw Willow reach inside her bear and pull out a miniature sword. As the Dragger woman leaned her head back, gorging on Tom’s flesh, the little knife flashed and cut a neat line across her throat. The Dragger’s eyes closed. The rictus of a smile faded from her face. Blood spewed from the cut, and her grip relaxed.
“He does have a sword….” Tom looked from the bear to Willow. “That bear was holdin’ out on me.”
Willow just slipped the incredibly sharp little thing away and put her free finger to her lips. “We’re not what you think.”
The Dragger fell away and disappeared through a partially burned-out roof. Tom gazed down. It shouldn’t be rooftops. They should still be over the airship yard. He looked over his shoulder toward the guyline.
The twisted ends of the steel cable flapped in the breeze, cut in a ragged line where three bullets had ripped through it.
“No signs of life.” Agatha reported back as Tom read the logbook in the Skipper’s chair on the bridge.
Nikki was working out which controls were still functional in the mass of smashed gauges and controls of the bridge while Willow tried to find the appropriate charts so she could plot their course as the wind swept them away from Milton. They’d all eaten some hardtack from the galley and drank their fill of water, which was enough to keep them going, but Tom’s stomach grumbled for real food.
Tom leaned forward and winced, his chest had a rough bandage across the bite-wound and it hurt like hell. “Signs of death?”
“Lots of blood, and most of the ship is messed up bad, but no bodies. Anything on your end?”
Tom snapped the black-covered logbook shut. “Nothin’… whole lotta questions, very few answers. Seems the old Captain died a week ago, and his logbooks are gone. This one starts with landfall in Labrador. Some mention of a passenger named Ishara, who was some high muckity-muck. It ends with docking in Milton, no mention of the Mist or nothin’…. Oh and it says they were carrying lead bars as cargo. Did you find ‘em on your survey?”
Agatha nodded. “Yep, though why anyone would carry so much lead is beyond me. What?—” She stared gape-mouthed at the open bridge door.
Tom and the others turned to see a beautiful young woman wearing a white dress in the doorway. She had dark olive skin and long, flowing, black hair.
“Who are you? What happened here?” Tom stood and took a step toward the woman, with Agatha close behind, but the woman turned and fled. By the time they reached the door she was gone.
“What the hell! I thought you said there was nobody else aboard?”
Agatha shrugged. “I looked everywhere. She must have a hidin’ spot. I heard smugglers sometimes have secret compartments, maybe….”
“Well let’s search again. I’ll help this time.”
“You sure? You’re still bleedin’.”
Tom looked down. Blood seeped through the bandage and dribbled onto his bare chest, leaving a red trail. “I’ll be fine. Nikki, lock the door behind us. Don’t let anyone else in.”
“Okey doke. You got a secret knock, or how do I know it’s you?”
“I’ll say it’s me, Tom, open the damned door!”
Nikki grinned sheepishly. “Right…. Suppose that’d do.”
Two hours later Tom’s chest felt like it had been front-and-centre at a cattle stampede, he was hot and dirty, and no closer to finding the woman’s secret hiding spot, but he did have a good feel for the layout of Hecate. She was a roomy craft, with berths for twelve crew, a well-appointed captain’s quarters and beside it a small but luxurious suite, obviously intended for the mysterious passenger. That was a bit of a head scratcher, because the vanity, complete with expensive soaps, brushes and make-up, wardrobe full of fine clothes and even the four-poster bed all appeared completely unused. There was a mess hall that could fit all former passengers and crew if they squeezed in tight with a decently appointed galley and full larder. An armoury with enough guns and ammunition to impress even Agatha, and far more than any ordinary trader would need (Tom strapped on a revolver that Agatha recommended to him while they were there). There was even a well kitted-out machine room, with every tool a man could need to keep Hecate in proper running order if he knew what he was about. Lastly, a cargo bay, underneath the crew-portion of the gondola was accessed by climbing down a companionway. It had enough room to fit a stagecoach and a team of horses, and had a two-ton winch elevator.
“We’ve got only one engine, it keeps overheating, but it runs, also full rudders and bladder control.” Nikki reported when Tom and Agatha returned.
“The gas bladder dimwit!” Nikki threw out her lower jaw.
“Aw, don’t pout. Makes you look like a man.”
Nikki went red and gritted her teeth. “With only one engine we can barely manage a straight course with the rudder full-over. If the wind blows us too far starboard we’ll have to do a complete three-sixty to get back on track.”
“What kind of speed can you manage?”
Nikki shrugged. “Top speed, ten, maybe twelve knots. Slower if the wind forces us to circle around a lot, and I need to rest the engine forty-five minutes of every hour to keep it from overheatin’.”
“Gauges are smashed, so I had Agatha check the tanks. She says they’re completely full.”
“Any chance of getting the other three engines going, or better cooling on the one?”
“Not as it stands.” Nikki swept a hand over a badly beaten-up portion of the panel. “It took all I know to get that one going.”
Tom rubbed his jaw. “I see. Anyone know how to fix it?” He looked each of them in the eye in turn. “Right then.” He flopped down in the Captain’s chair. “Willow, plot us a course for the nearest place we can get some repairs done.”
“Aye Captain.” Willow grinned at him.
Agatha frowned. “He’s not the Captain!”
“Got the charts right here Captain.” Willow glanced down at her plotting table and shoved Sir Furrybottom to the side. “Should be a coupla days if Nikki can hold a fairly straight course.”
“Pilot Nikki, take your sister’s course direction. Both of you teach Agatha enough so she can take shifts.”
Agatha snorted. “I don’t take orders from you.”
Tom shrugged. “It makes sense, you’ve gotta admit.”
Agatha shook her head. “And what’re you gonna be doin’?”
Tom stood and walked to the door. “I am going to fix us some proper grub.” On the threshold he turned back. “Oh, I nearly forgot. So long as we haven’t found our mystery guest, Nikki and Willow is always to be accompanied by me or Agatha or in a safely locked room.”
As he turned and walked away he heard Willow’s “Aye Captain,” followed immediately by Agatha, “He’s not the Captain!”
End of Episode 1