Note to readers: This will be the last Thursday update of Orphans for a while. I hope to return to a bi-weekly schedule in the new year. Until then episodes will continue to come out every Monday. Also, if you, or your friends prefer an e-reader format, the first two episodes of Orphans are available free from Smashwords.
The story so far…
Captain Tom Cain and the crew of the airship Hecate transported a gang of thieves and their ill gotten gains to Aethiopica on Atlantis while being pursued by the mysterious military airship, Actaeon. Tom, Agatha and Shorty were to escort the thieves to their buyer, and collect payment for Hecate’s service, but the thieves gave them the slip in a maze of alleys. When we left our trio they’d just been spotted by a group of soldiers from the military airship.
Recently we spent some time with Dog, an escaped Gladiator, who made his way from the Inner Precincts of Atlantis to the city of Aethiopica, but today we return to Tom, Agatha, and Shorty, as they flee through the back alleys of Aethiopica from a group of soldiers in black.
The men in black were too fast. Agatha kept up, but Shorty had to take three steps to every two Tom took.
“This way!” Tom charged around a corner, nearly bowling over an old woman picking through a pile of trash. He was hopelessly lost in the maze of alleys. He took the next right, then a left, but there was nothing to help them lose their pursuit. Tom tipped garbage bins over in their path, but the men in black simply leapt the obstacles.
“In here!” a promising-looking alley. Tom and the others rounded the corner, only to see it was a dead end. Garbage was piled high along one wall, but it was too late to hide.
They heard the men in black stop behind them at the mouth of the alley and turned to face their pursuers. All six of the soldiers carried short lever-action rifles or shotguns, and all of the weapons were levelled at Tom and his friends.
Agatha slowly slid her hand down to her revolver and unhooked the leather strap holding it in place.
Tom put his hand over hers. “You can’t get all of them.”
One of the men in black stepped a pace forward. “Raise your hands so we can see them, and come out of there peacefully. We have you surrounded. There is no possible escape.”
The next instant the garbage bins beside the six soldiers exploded outward. A large black youth leapt from behind them. In an eyeblink he dropped the two soldiers nearest him with his fists. The remaining four soldiers turned toward their attacker.
Tom charged up the alley, screaming madly to try and distract the soldiers. Behind him he heard Agatha call. “Get down Tom!”
The soldiers’ assailant kicked a shotgun aside, and followed through with a downward chop from his right hand, disarming another soldier. Then he spun in place and swung a foot high, catching a third soldier in the temple.
The last man, an officer by the look of his uniform, turned and had a bead on the black man with his shotgun. Tom dove, caught the officer around the waist and brought him crashing to the ground.
Agatha and Shorty ran up and gathered all the weapons.
Tom got to his feet and pulled his revolver to cover the three conscious soldiers. “Nobody move.”
The black man stared at Tom, with a mixture of fear and puzzlement on his face. He looked ready to bolt.
Tom smiled. “Thanks for saving our hides.”
The black man’s nostrils flared and he narrowed his eyes.
“Hey, you okay? We ain’t gonna do anything to you.”
Agatha was busily tying the soldiers’ hands behind their backs with their own belts, while Shorty covered them.
The black man turned to go.
“Hey wait!” Tom called. “Can I do anything to help you? You really saved our bacon there. I’m Tom. No need to be scared, all I want to do is help.”
The young man stopped and turned to face Tom. “I am called Dog. And I am not afraid of you.”
“Dog? That’s not much of a name.”
Dog cocked his head to the side. “It is not mine by choice, but it is all the name I have. How do you think you can help me?”
“Seems obvious you’re runnin’ from somethin’. Can we give you a lift?”
“You know, a ride. We have an airship, named Hecate.”
Dog smiled. “Yes, I would appreciate a lift on your Hecate.”
“Great, it’s settled then.” Tom turned to see Agatha was finished restraining and gagging the soldiers. “Good work Aggy, shall we go?”
She stood up to face him. “Don’t call me Aggy.”
“Okay… let’s get going… Agatha. Comin’ Dog?”
Dog shook his head. “I do not think you know who I am.”
Tom shrugged. “Does it matter? You helped us out, now we can give you a hand.”
Dog pointed to a scrap of paper glued to the wall of the alley. Tom turned and read it, “Wanted, Dead or Alive, by order of Emperor Ellil. 50,000 guilder reward.”
Tom whistled. “Fifty thousand? What did you do?”
Dog looked ready to run again. “You will turn me in.”
Agatha stepped forward. “Tom has his flaws, but he’s a man of his word. He’ll treat you square.”
Dog relaxed a little. “Those posters are everywhere. I cannot simply walk to your Hecate.”
Shorty strolled over. “Give me fifty guilder I’ve got a plan, Captain.”
“Fifty?” Tom dug into his pocket.
“Just trust me, you want to save him right?”
Tom hung his head. “Fine…” he dropped a purse into Shorty’s hand, “Here’s a hundred. Make it quick before anyone notices this mess.”
Shorty took off at a run, while Tom, Agatha and Dog worked to conceal the bound men beneath a pile of garbage.
“Profit is down to three-hundred fifty now.” Agatha threw a tied-up stack of newspapers on top of a soldier. The man grunted in pain. “After we re-fuel and such, we’ll be lucky to clear two hundred.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine, I take all the blame when things go wrong, but when things go smoothly it’s all Agatha, or Nikki, or Shorty….”
“Oh quit your whining and hand me that sack of rotting lettuce.” Agatha threw the bag at the officer’s head.
“It’s not whining, I’m just saying… I never get any of the credit.”
“You know what your problem is?”
Tom paused with his hands in a pile of mouldy bread crusts. “No Agatha. Tell me, what is my problem?”
“You think you’re too smart by half. If you’d just listen to the people around you for half a second before flying off on one of your wild campaigns we’d all be better off!”
“If it weren’t for me we’d still be rotting in Johnson City!” Tom heaved an empty metal bin on top of a soldier. A staccato squeal came from the man, as though he were trying to scream obscenities through his gag.
“Oh, fine, so instead of rottin’, we’re digging through rot. Vast improvement!” Agatha kicked some browned fruit in the general direction of the soldiers, splattering the pile of garbage in foul-smelling juice.
“So you’re suggesting I should just do nothin’? Sell Hecate for scrap and be done?” Tom hefted a bin and spread the contents liberally over the pile of soldiers.
Agatha threw handfuls of egg shells and coffee grounds at the growing pile. “No, just stop and think for once in your life! People around you have ideas too you know.”
The only signs of the soldiers in black were an occasional muffled, “NnnnnNnngh!” and a rustling noise from behind a wall of garbage.
With an ear-splitting shriek, Dog pushed a large metal bin across the alley to help hide their handiwork. “Are you two… involved, or something?”
“No!” Tom and Agatha turned on him at the same instant.
“Don’t be disgusting.” Agatha wiped her hands on a scrap of cloth.
Dog spread his hands. “Merely asking. When will your little friend return?”
Up the alley the sound of wooden wheels on the rough stones approached along with a reek of fish. Tom and Agatha drew their weapons, and Dog pressed himself flat against the corner.
A moment later, Shorty appeared, towing a heavy vending cart. “Hop in Dog!” He lifted the lid to show the inside of the cart was one large compartment used to transport the goods back and forth to market. Currently it was half full of extremely smelly fish.
Shorty tossed the purse back to Tom. “Sorry, I had to spend seventy, didn’t have time to haggle.”
Agatha raised an eyebrow at Tom. “Puts us down to three hundred thirty.”
She grinned impishly. “Just sayin’ is all.”
“What are you lot doing with a vending cart?” The entrance to the airship port was cordoned off, and all passages in and out were blocked by Atlantean Homeland Police.
A hairy man in a slightly rumpled AHP uniform gazed suspiciously at Tom, Agatha and Shorty with his little piggy eyes.
“My cousin was supposed to bring some fish to our ship,” Shorty volunteered. “He’s laid up, so he let us borrow his cart and do it ourselves.”
“Fish you say? That’s all I’ll find if I look inside?”
Tom laughed. “Of course. What are you folks out here lookin’ for anyhow?”
“Big black guy.” The copper pointed to the “Wanted” poster nearby. “If you see him, you report him to me, got it?”
“Sure thing officer.” Shorty nodded vigorously. “You want a look?” He grabbed the lip of the cart’s lid.
The officer wrinkled his nose and nodded reluctantly.
Tom held his breath as Shorty flipped the lid up. The odour of fish came out in a foul-smelling cloud.
The copper pinched his nose and squinted into the dim interior of the cart. “A’right, close it!” Shorty let the lid fall. “Now get out of here!” The officer didn’t even look back, as the three crewmates wheeled the cart into the port.
Hecate was waiting for them, lift down on the ground. Tom and Shorty manoeuvred the cart on to it and Agatha took the lift control.
Tom knocked on the side of the cart. “We’re in the clear, you can come out in a minute.”
Agatha shook her head. “Well, I’m glad that catastrophe’s over. At least we got out with our skins intact.”
Shorty laughed. “We’re not away yet. I bet the Portmaster has some words reserved for the captain after our stunt coming in to port.”
Agatha grinned. “Well then, at least it’s over for all of us but Tom.”
Tom shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “Yeah, laugh it up you two.”
The lift ground to a halt in Hecate’s cargo bay. Shorty flipped the lid of the cart open, and a very smelly Dog piled out, clothes matted to his body with fish slime.
“What, no welcome back?” Tom stared around the empty bay. He walked to the cargo bay’s com unit and flicked the switch for the bridge. “We’re back.”
Nikki’s voice answered, she sounded anxious. “We’re on the bridge Captain.”
“Captain?” Agatha frowned. “Since when does she address you as Captain?”
Dog frowned. “He is the Captain.”
“Well, technically yes, but discipline is pretty loose around here.” Agatha opened the hatch out of the bay and climbed up the companionway. “Only one who usually calls him Captain is Willow.”
She threw open the door to the bridge, stopped suddenly, then edged inside slowly. Sitting there, holding a pistol on Agatha was a dark-skinned, Middle-Eastern looking officer in a black uniform. He was flanked by two other men, holding shotguns on Nikki and Willow.
“This must be Captain Tom I’ve heard so much about.” He proffered a hand to Tom.
Reluctantly, Tom stepped on to the bridge and took it. “What do you mean to do with us?”
“Oh! I’m not going to do anything.” He motioned with his pistol. “Why don’t you all come in.” Dog and Shorty stepped on to the now-crowded bridge. “In case you hadn’t guessed, I am Captain of the Actaeon. My name is Etana. And you are… Let me get this right, I already know Nikki and Willow, the rest of you must be Captain Tom, Agatha, Shorty…” he frowned, looking at Dog, then a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Dog, the escaped gladiator. Everyone on Atlantis is looking for you.” Etana wrinkled his nose. “You certainly do smell like a dog.”
Dog nodded. “I did not expect to find an Aesir here. You are not as fat as the others I have known.”
Etana laughed. “I differ from my brethren in many ways.”
Tom strode over to Etana until the other man’s pistol was nearly touching his chest. “Yes, you know our names. Good for you. Introductions are over, now what do you want?”
“You gave me a great chase. Not many airships could run as fast as yours. How did you come by her?” Etana said it in a light tone, but his face was deathly serious as he eyed the crew closely.
Agatha’s hand crept toward her revolver. “None of your business!”
Tom shook his head slightly at her. “We found her abandoned, in a town called Milton that was overrun by Mist and Draggers.”
Captain Etana tilted his head to the side. “Curious… and why do you think anyone would abandon her?”
“I don’t know. Now I need you to answer a few questions for me.” Tom pressed even closer to Etana, the other captain was muscular, but short, so Tom hoped to intimidate him. “What are you going to do with us?”
“You already asked that question.”
“Are you going to answer this time?”
Etana chuckled and holstered his pistol. He nodded at the two soldiers and they lowered their shotguns. “You are a precocious pup. I just want to talk Captain Tom, I don’t mean you harm.”
“I don’t fear the Emperor, and I don’t need his rewards. Dog can go with you if he likes. Anything else?”
“Aesir, Dog said you’re Aesir. What does that mean?”
“Ahh, yes. That’s a name we use among ourselves,” Etana wrinkled his nose in distaste, “or they use among themselves…. The Aesir are the masters of Atlantis.”
Agatha made a sign against dark magic, which brought another laugh from Etana. “I don’t have any special powers young lady. No need to fear me.”
Magician or not, the though of an Aesir on his ship made Tom nervous. “I thought you people never left the Inner Precincts.”
“Most don’t, I am a rare exception. Now, if you’re just about done with your little questions, I have a proposal for you.”
Tom nodded. “Shoot.”
“I understand you were merely transporting the thieves. If I’d thought for one minute you fully understood what you were doing, I’d have brought your entire airship down. Clear so far?”
Tom narrowed his eyes. “Clear.”
“If you should encounter any unusual artefacts again, you are to contact me. Send an all-stations telegraph addressed to Actaeon and you will be well rewarded for your assistance.”
“And if I don’t you shoot us down next time… yeah, got it.”
“You’re stealing my thunder here, young Captain Tom. Yes, we will shoot next time. If you make an account for Hecate I’ll send an all-stations telegraph if I have work for you. I do pay quite handsomely, and with this ship you could be very useful to me.” Etana waved to his two soldiers. “Now I think it’s time we left.”
Tom cleared his throat. “A few more things Captain.”
Etana paused. “Yes?”
“Some of your men tried to jump us. You’ll find them tied up in an alley off the market square we landed in.”
“Is that so? I was wondering why Lieutenant Brax hadn’t reported in. Thank you Captain. Anything else?”
“You come on my ship again without permission, and I’ll be the one doing the shootin’.”
Etana laughed and led his men off the bridge. “You’re a treasure Captain Tom. I look forward to doing business with you.” Their footsteps retreated down the corridor, followed by the sound of Hecate’s exterior hatch.
“Well… that was tense.” Shorty re-fastened the strap on his shotgun. “What are we going to do now?”
Tom threw himself into his Captain’s chair and cupped his hands under his chin. “I’m tired of working for hire, I say we pick up our own cargo.”
Nikki frowned. “But we don’t have the money to buy a cargo.”
“Not buy… steal. Though I suppose it’s not really stealing if it’s yours in the first place. Willow, plot us a course for Havenvale! Let’s cast off in five minutes. I’m getting’ sick of this dump.”
Nikki cleared her throat. “Umm Tom?”
“Warm up the engines, Nikki, let’s get goin’.”
Nikki grimaced. “Yeah, about that. We’re not goin’ anywhere.”
“What? Come on! This is a chance to get our gold back. Charkart probably hasn’t realized what he has yet. If he still thinks it’s lead he’ll hold on to it for a while ‘till he figures any stories we’ve told about him are forgotten. It’s not like it’ll be hard to steal, I mean nobody in their right mind would bother to steal lead right?”
“No… it’s not that. I think getting the gold back is actually a pretty good idea.”
“C’mon, out with it. I want to get outta here before we lose any more of our profit on this deal.”
“We can’t leave because the portmaster had us chained to the tower. He said he won’t release Hecate until he’s seen you… and something about a two-hundred guilder fine for illegal manoeuvres in city limits. Plus we owe a mooring fee, we need to take on more supplies, and refuel.”
Agatha cleared her throat. “You know… normally I hate to say I told you so, but—”
Tom glared at her. “Then don’t.”
End Episode 4