The story so far…
Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate.
Hecate has a mysterious stowaway, a young woman named Ishara, who rarely comes out of hiding. Last episode she helped a vertically challenged mechanic called Shorty to rescue the crew from a crime syndicate in the town of Havenvale, then disappeared, back into the bowels of Hecate.
Unable to find more honest work, the crew took on a group of five rough-looking men headed for Atlantis with a mysterious cargo. Thanks to Ishara and Shorty, they know it’s a crystal skull, which would be worth an inconceivable amount of money if it weren’t broken.
We rejoin them as they’re being pursued by Actaeon, a military airship of unknown origin.
Actaeon was still there. A few hundred feet below and losing ground ever so slightly, but tight enough it would be a race to dock and get everyone off Hecate before Actaeon could drop a ground-party.
The cold, grey line of dawn had barely reached the eastern horizon, and it was already clear it would be a very long day. Somehow the crew of the Actaeon had picked up on Hecate’s late-night altitude change. Somehow they were keeping up. Somehow they had known exactly were to go in the first place to find Hecate.
Tom dropped the spyglass from his eye. “Who are those guys?” He shivered inside the high-altitude flight-suit. All the fleece lining in the world wasn’t enough with sixty-five knot winds at minus thirty.
The climb down to the gondola left Tom panting in the thin air. His lungs burned from the ice crystals formed every time he breathed in too sharply. He paused and leaned against the rail to catch his breath.
Agatha was waiting inside the hatch. “So’d we lose ‘em?”
Tom shook his head and stumbled into the bridge. The exertion of the climb had left him lightheaded. He flopped down in his chair.
The whole crew was gathered on the bridge to hear the news, all of them bundled up in fleece-lined coveralls and gloves like him. They stared anxiously.
“We’ll beat ‘em to Aetheopica. But just barely.”
“If only we had more time, I’m sure I could give you a little more output on the engines.” Shorty frowned. “We should get some fuel additives in Aetheopica… I could get another ten, maybe twenty percent more power.”
Tom smiled. “You did great already Shorty. Thanks to you and Nikki we’re going to win this race.”
Agatha said, “What are you gonna tell the boys in the hold?”
“We’ll tell ‘em the way it’s gonna be. We do an emergency drop-off, then Agatha and I escort them to their buyer and take our cut.”
“I’m comin’ too.” Shorty stepped forward.
Agatha gave him a once-over. “Can you handle yourself if it comes to a fight?”
Shorty nodded and pulled out a long leather holster. From it he withdrew a double-barrel, sawed-off shotgun.
Agatha took it and nodded. “That’ll do it. When did you have time to make all that?”
“Yesterday, we had some leather stock, so I made the holster. Cutting the shotgun down was easy.”
Tom laughed. “You know, some people call a sawed-off a shorty.”
“Yeah Tom, I’ve always favoured them. Where do you think I got my nickname?”
“I thought you said it was from your last name?”
Shorty shrugged. “My story changes, depending on when you ask me.”
Four hours later, Tom was back in the crow’s nest, along with Agatha as Hecate passed the last of the Mist and entered the halcyon zone around Atlantis. Crystal-blue waters below were dotted with fishing vessels on the world’s only stretch of Mist-free ocean. Far off in the distance, Atlantis was only a thin smudge against the horizon.
Agatha gaped in amazement. “I have never seen open ocean before…. How do they keep the Mist away?”
Tom laughed. “I said almost the same thing my first time. Answer’s the same, nobody knows, ‘cept maybe the Atlanteans. I’ve never known anyone who met a proper Atlantean though, so good luck askin’ about it.”
“It’s like… the way the world should be, you know?” Agatha got a far-off look, but snapped herself back a moment later. “Anyhow, enough sightseeing. I’m goin’ below to make sure everythin’s ready.”
“Right, I’ll keep an eye out for a while longer. Be down soon.”
Agatha clipped in to the jackline, swung on to the rigging and disappeared from sight. Actaeon was still there, like a stray dog that’s been fed. What did they want?
Tom leaned in to the intercom. “When do we begin our descent?”
Nikki’s voice came back, “Fifteen minutes for optimum speed Captain. Asking every five minutes won’t make it come any sooner.”
Tom flicked the com switch off and rubbed his face to keep the frostbite away. “Yeah, easy for you to say down there, out of the wind.” He hugged himself tightly and stamped his feet.
The intercom crackled on. “Hello?” a woman’s voice asked.
Tom toggled the switch back on. “Who is this?”
“Don’t trust them.”
“Who am I talking to?”
“Oathbreakers, they’re oathbreakers. Don’t trust them.”
“Don’t trust who?” Tom waited for a reply. “Who’s there? Is this Ishara?”
The hiss of empty aether was the only reply.
“Be careful down there, you can’t trust these guys.” Nikki leaned in and gave Tom a hug. The two of them were alone in the galley, grabbing a bite to eat before things got busy.
“I know that. Why does everyone keep telling me?”
“We want you to be safe Tom.” Nikki gazed up into his eyes. “I want you to come back safe.”
Tom smiled, her eyes drew him in…. Green, how was it he’d never noticed her eyes were green before. He felt a kick of adrenaline and could feel the flush creeping up to his cheeks. Nikki turned her face upwards.
Tom leaned forward so he could feel her breath on his face, their lips brushed and….
“I’m starving! What are you guys eating?” Agatha blundered in to the galley. “Oh… sorry, did I interrupt?”
Nikki sighed. “No, just getting some lunch. Join us.”
Agatha looked from Tom to Nikki. “Maybe I’ll just grab a couple slabs of bread and some ham. I’ll eat elsewhere.”
Tom shrugged. “No, it’s fine, really. I was just leaving anyhow.”
Behind Agatha’s back, Nikki shot him a dark look. Tom shrugged, wondering how following her lead could possibly have been the wrong thing to do.
“Ready?” Tom reached down and adjusted his revolver on his gun belt. It never quite sat right with him, something about the weight was just a bit off. He was gathered on the lift with Shorty, Agatha and the five toughs. The men had left their guns and other gear behind at Tom’s request, and carried only the box with the crystal skull. All of them wore goggles and flight helmets.
Shorty put his hand on the winch control. “Soon as we get the signal.”
Jim Smith scratched at his beard. “An’ we have a minute or two to clear off before Actaeon’s troops hit the ground?”
“Assuming they rappel, yeah. If they dock first we have longer.”
Jim grimaced. “Oh they’ll rappel all right. Etana’s got a bug up his arse.”
The light on the cargo-hold intercom went green. Nikki’s voice came on, “Time to go, good luck!”
Shorty hit the winch control and the lift descended through the floor of the Hecate’s cargo-bay. Wind howled around them as multi-storey brick buildings flashed by on either side. Below, pedestrians looked up in surprise, and traffic came to a near stop as the airships’s shadow passed. Shorty continued their descent until they were fairly skimming over the heads of the shocked people below.
Tom gripped the rail of the lift and grinned. “This is what I call a ride!”
The pitch of Hecate’s engines changed and Shorty called, “Hang on!”
The lift swung forward as Hecate’s full power turned to reverse, Shorty pushed the lift control and they began to drop towards a large plaza filled with people and temporary shops.
“Get ready to jump!” Tom called. He swung his feet over the rail and dangled above the crowd. People below screamed and scattered when they saw the lift bearing down on them. The eight passengers gripped the sides, as Shorty gave the lever one last toggle to drop them within a half-dozen feet of the brick road below.
The lift neared the end of its arc and came to a near-stop.
“Go, go!” Shorty yelled, and let go of his side. He fell, and bounced awkwardly off a kiosk. The others followed, landing among the market patrons.
Above them they could hear the hiss of gas-bags inflating and Hecate’s lift shot upward. The eight of them gathered their wits and got to their feet.
“Actaeon’s comin’ up fast!” Tom pointed to the airship as it followed in Hecate’s wake. A dozen men in black uniforms dangled from ropes over the crowded street.
Jim and his toughs led the way. They bulled through the crowds, heading for a maze of narrow alleys he had suggested as the best place to lose their pursuit.
Tom glanced over his shoulder as they neared the edge of the market. “They’re dropping!” Twelve black clad men slid easily down their ropes and began to push through the crowds in the wake made by Jim and his men.
“This way!” Jim called. The alley was barely a metre wide, and near dark to Tom’s eyes after the sunlit plaza. A dozen yards in they came to an intersection. Jim and his cohort dodged right, then left at the next one. All the alleys looked the same. Stout doors flashed by. Overhead, washing on lines dripped on the runners below. Garbage littered the sides, piled into huge stinking masses in places, leaving only a thin trail for foot traffic between mounds.
They rounded corner after corner, at a dizzying rate. Tom lost all sense of direction.
Ahead, Tom heard Jim call, “We have an appointment with Mister Thonian. Those three aren’t with us!”
The five thugs fled up the street while Tom and company were blocked by two musclebound bruisers. They both levelled shotguns at the approaching trio.
Tom skidded to a halt. “We have business with them! They owe us money.”
“Not our problem pal,” said the slightly larger of the two. “Nobody goes into Thonian’s territory without a pass.”
Tom squared his shoulders and prepared to push through the men, shotguns or no, but Agatha grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. “Nevermind that Tom. We lost ‘em. Game’s over.”
Jim Smith and the others rounded a corner and disappeared from sight.
“Ah hell, you’re right….” Tom turned and walked away. “I guess we take our lumps. Five hundred ain’t bad profit anyhow. At least we didn’t get in any trouble.”
Agatha shook her head. “Portmaster’ll probably fine you a hundred or so for dangerous flying.”
“Okay… four hundred ain’t too bad.”
Shorty raised an eyebrow. “Do I still get those tools you promised?”
Tom was about to answer when a cry came from the far end of the alley. “There they are!”
Six black-clad soldiers stormed toward them.
End Episode 3