Sunday, September 30, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-2, C-2

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. As they were pulling out of Milton, a young woman appeared at the door to the bridge, but she ran away before any of the crew could ask her what had happened.
They came to the town of Havenvale looking for repairs, but ran afoul of the local syndicate, had their drinks dosed and wound up unconscious, lying on the floor of a saloon.

Episode 2
Chapter 2

When Tom awoke he had a splitting headache and the inside of his mouth tasted like he’d been licking garbage cans. He hawked and spat in the corner. He was in a dimly-lit room with a dirt floor, roughly heaped in a corner with Agatha, Nikki and Willow atop a straw-filled mattress. Four stone walls, a stout wooden door in the middle of one, and high in the opposite wall was a grate of bars, perhaps two feet tall by four across that let in a crack of light from the gas-lamps outside.
Tom grabbed the bars, jumped and held his face level with the opening. The window was set at street level, but there was nobody outside. He dropped back down.
“Uhh, bastard drugged us.” Agatha sat up, rubbing her face.
“What was your first clue?”
“Shut up.” She got to her feet and surveyed the room. “Got a plan to get us out of this mess?”
“If you’re looking to me for a plan, does that mean I’m the Captain?”
“Captain of what? Charkart’s probably flyin’ off in Hecate right now, laughing at our stupidity.”
“Repairs’ll take at least a day.”
“Oh good, so between now and then, all we have to do is escape, make our way there without getting caught, and get past whatever guards he puts on ‘er when he realises we’re gone. Easy, right?”
Tom pinched the bridge of his nose. Agatha was making his headache worse. “I’ll get Hecate back.”
“Yeah, so what’s the plan genius?”
“I don’t know! I’m still thinking, but it’ll come.”
Agatha snorted. “Well good luck with that. Tell you what, if you actually get us Hecate back, I won’t hassle you about bein’ Captain no more.”
“You mean it?”
“Yeah sure, since it’ll never happen.”
“I’ll get her back. Just give me some time to think.” Tom retreated to a corner of the cell and sat, contemplating a way out, while Agatha toured the room, probing, punching, and kicking anything that looked like a weak spot.
Tom stared at the pool of light on the floor. Even that had shadow-bars across it. There had to be something, there was always a way out, he just had to find it before Charkart shipped Hecate off. Tom pounded his fist into the dirt floor, being Captain of an airship had been his dream for as long as he could remember, and for two short days it had come true. He wasn’t going to let it end so soon. Besides, he owed the others, they all had a share in Hecate, and none of them had a place to go if she was lost.
“Uhh, what hit me?” Willow rose unsteadily to her feet.
“They spiked your sarsaparilla.” Agatha frowned. “I shoulda seen it comin’, he was too pushy.”
“Ain’t your fault Agatha.” Tom stood and gazed out the barred window again. “My fault. I shoulda been more prepared.”
Willow shrugged. “None of us saw it comin’ Tom.”
“I’m the Captain! Things go wrong it’s always my fault.”
“Exactly, you’re the Captain. You’ll figure us a way out of this.”
For a miracle, Agatha let it lie at that and returned to probing their cell.
“What happened? I feel like I’ve been run over.” Nikki sat up.
“You drank too much beer.” Tom shrugged.
“This the drunk tank?” Nikki shook her head and winced. “What’s Willow doin’ here then? She was drinkin’ sarsaparilla.”
Agatha stomped over. “Stop messing with her head Tom. Charkart drugged us so he can steal Hecate.”
A metal slot grated open at the bottom of the door. A pitcher of water, a bucket, and a tray of bread and cheese was shoved through from the far side.
Tom ran to the door but the slot closed before he got there. He pounded on the door. “Hey! This ain’t legal! We salvaged Hecate fair ‘n square. You can’t just lock us up and take ‘er away!”
The voice that answered was deep and rough, not Charkart’s. “There ain’t no law in this town but Charkart’s law. He wants somethin’, he takes it.”
“What’re you gonna do with us?”
“Well, yer lucky there son. He figures ain’t nobody gonna believe a bunch of kids word over his, specially if the airship they claim to own is nowhere around. He’ll ship Hecate out when the repairs are done tomorrow night, an’ hold you ‘till the next slaver comes through.”
Tom kicked the door. “Slavery’s not legal in America!”
“Oh quit your moanin’. Cushy life that, slave in Atlantis. No Mist to worry ‘bout.”
“Yeah then why don’t you sign up?”
“I already have a cushy life, running Charkart’s cells.”
Nikki put on a breathy voice. “Well, since you’re the man in charge here, perhaps you could think about letting us go.”
The man on the other side coughed. “Why would I do that miss?”
“Oh, I think I could make it worth your while.”
After a pause they heard the voice again. “I’m a married man… happily married I mean.”
“Surely there must be some things your wife doesn’t do for you?”
“Never you mind that missy, we get along fine.”
“Well, there are other things. Things of value on Hecate. You get us to her and we can pay you real handsomely.”
“Charkart would have my hide. That’s all I’m a gonna say on the matter. G’night folks, might as well get comfy.”
“We could take you with us!” Nikki’s voice lost the husky undertone.
Footsteps receded from their door, and a moment later the streetlamp outside went dark, leaving the crew with only a faint trickle of moonlight.
“Nice try Nikki.” Willow patted her on the shoulder.
“You wouldn’t have… given yourself to him, would you?” Agatha gaped at Nikki.
“No….” Nikki blushed and looked down. “’Course not, I’m not that kinda gal.”
Willow grinned impishly. “Why don’t you tell ‘em what kind of gal you are?”
Nikki rounded on her sister. “Enough Willow!”
Tom raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean—”
“Pssst!” Someone was at the window.
Tom hauled himself up by the bars so he could see out. It was the short guy they’d seen earlier in the day, the one claiming to be a mechanic.
“What do you want?”
The small fellow doffed his flat cap, he looked older with it off. “Can we try with the introductions again?”
“Fine, Tom Cain here.”
“Elias Short.”
Tom laughed. “Your name is… Short?”
Elias grinned. “Yeah, most people call me Shorty… on account of my name.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s on account of your name, not… anything else.”
Shorty tilted his head to the side with a half-smile. “Hey listen, do you want my help or not?”
“I’m listenin’.”
“I overheard you say each of you has an even share in Hecate, that right?”
Tom nodded. “I’m Captain though.”
Shorty shrugged. “Sure thing, you’re Captain… I want in.”
“In what?”
“You give me an even share in Hecate, I’ll get you guys out.”
“No, you can come aboard for a wage, like regular crew.”
“All right. Good luck gettin’ out.” Shorty turned and took a step away.
“Wait!” Nikki said from below. “Tom, surely goin’ from a quarter to a fifth of somethin’ is better than goin’ from a quarter to nothin’ at all.”
Shorty stopped and looked back over his shoulder.
Tom dropped down and turned to the girls. “You all feel this way?” They nodded. “Okay.” He pulled himself back up to the window.
Shorty grinned at him. “We have a deal?”
“Yeah, get us out of here.”
Shorty produced a small saw. “Work on the bars so they’re almost cut through. Hide the cuts and metal shavings. Tomorrow night, when the streetlight goes out, climb out of there, and get to the port. I’ll have Hecate all warmed up and ready to fly.”
“Right, don’t leave without us.” Tom grabbed the saw and dropped to the floor. “Let’s get to work!”
The sound of Shorty’s footsteps receding was nearly drowned by the rasp of the small saw. They took shifts with it during the night and by the time the first fingers of dawn began to massage the horizon they had one very dull saw and four bars weakened enough so they could be removed by hand.
Tom grabbed some dirt from outside the window and covered up their night’s work. “Oughta do it.”
Willow grinned at him. “I knew you’d come up with something Captain.”
Agatha crossed her arms. “It was Shorty came up with the plan, not Tom!”
Nikki lay down on the mattress and glanced at Tom. “I… I, think it’s time we got some rest.”
“Yeah,” Tom stretched out his sore muscles. “I feel like my arm’s gonna fall off.”
“I’m cold.” Nikki shivered and smiled up at Tom. “D’you think you could lie next to me?”
“Sure.” Tom settled down on the mattress and threw an arm over her. Nikki took his hand, pulled it over her like a blanket, and hugged it tight.
“Oh for the love of—” Agatha growled in anger. “I don’t recall buying tickets to the burlesque.”
Willow lay down beside her sister and settled in for sleep. “Jealous?”
“No! Of course not…. Eww.” Agatha stood over the rest of the crew, hands on hips. “Shove over will ya?” Agatha pushed at Willow until there was a space for her too.
The day passed quietly. Around noon their guard came and gave them another meal, exchanged their bucket for a clean one and left again, refusing to let Nikki engage him in further conversation. A thick layer of clouds rolled in around sunset, and a chill breeze came in the open window. The gas lamp in the street came on and soon after the stars were out.
“I’d love to see the look on Charkart’s face when he finds we’ve flown the coop!” Tom did a little jig.
“Better yet, when he finds Hecate’s gone too.” Willow took his arm and spun with Tom across the floor.
“We’re not clear yet.” Agatha jumped and lifted herself on an uncut section of bars. “What time did the streetlight go out last night?”
Tom shrugged. “Dunno, it was full dark when I woke up. Don’t matter, we just have to wait.”
They were all full of nervous energy, pacing, jumping up to look out the window, trying to guess the time. Soon enough their evening meal, and bucket replacement arrived. Nikki didn’t even try to talk to the guard.
They were all quietly eating when the streetlight went out.
Tom jumped to his feet. “Hot damn, let’s get out of here.” He twisted the pre-cut bars free and tossed them down to Agatha, then dropped to the ground and offered his hands like a stirrup. “Ladies first.”
Agatha ignored his hands, took a run and planted a foot on the wall to propel herself upwards, then grabbed two of the remaining bars and slithered through the opening like it was nothing. Tom helped Nikki and Willow through, then jumped and hauled himself out the opening.
Tom’s eyes hadn’t fully adjusted yet, and it was near total darkness on the street. Only the faint light of from distant thoroughfare gave him some orientation. The others were just standing there, doing nothing. “Hey, let’s get a move on!” Tom hissed.
That moment the gas-lamp came back on. Ponderoy Charkart stood underneath it, eyes twinkling. “So, I heard you’d like to see the look on my face when I found out you’d escaped.” He grinned, showing all his pointy teeth and pointed a finger at himself. “Well… this is it.”
Each end of the street was blocked by a half-dozen thugs with cudgels.

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-2, C-1

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. As they were pulling out of Milton, a young woman appeared at the door to the bridge, but she ran away before any of the crew could ask her what had happened.
Now they limp toward the nearest repair station on one engine, with heavily damaged controls.

Episode 2 
Chapter 1

“Town ahoy Captain!” Willow withdrew the spyglass from her eye with a grin and leaned back from the railing of the Hecate’s outer deck. She’d raided the spare clothes from the old crew and now wore a pair of flight-goggles, a bomber hat, and an oversized navy pea-coat that she’d belted at the waist with a yellow silk scarf.
“Is it the right one?” Tom furrowed his brow, squinting at the horizon.
Willow rolled her eyes. “Yeah Tom. We took the course heading I gave, arrived within minutes of the timetable I plotted, but it’s the wrong town. Try to have a little faith.”
Tom smiled at her. “Sorry, I’m new to this.”
“Don’t apologise! You’re the Captain, try to act like it, ‘kay?”
“Hey, you two mind moving aside? I’d like to see where I’m steering.” Nikki’s muted voice came through the glass of the bridge. She was doing the best she could on Hecate’s smashed control console, but it made her irritable. She’d returned Tom’s flight jacket and raided the mystery-passenger’s wardrobe for a black-trimmed red wool overcoat to keep her warm. She didn’t quite have the curves to fill it out yet, but if she’d been a few years older it would fit her like it was made for her.
Of the mystery passenger herself, they’d seen no further sign. Tom had locked all the food and drink away at night in an attempt to draw her out, but she either had her own supplies wherever she was hiding, or was too scared to take the bait.
Tom and Willow walked around the side of Hecate’s bridge and in through the forward hatch.
“I should fix us some lunch.” Tom turned toward the galley.
Willow groaned. “Lemme guess, beans and bacon?”
Tom shrugged. “I like beans and bacon, ‘sides it’s the only thing I know how to cook.”
Willow shuddered. “We have got to get someone aboard who can do better in the galley.”
“You wanna cook, go ahead, but I’m not taking any more crew on ‘till we’ve done some cargo runs and can pay ‘em proper.”
“Don’t want to give up more of your share?”
“Exactly, Hecate could be great for all of us. It’s a new start, an’ if we take the right steps we can all live on her as long as we want. Aint you ever wanted to see the world?”
Willow’s eyes crinkled at the corners like she was holding back a smile. “Of course.”
Agatha was bustling around the galley when they arrived. “There’s no food!”
Willow laughed. “There’s hard-tack.” She opened a cupboard and tapped one of the biscuits inside against the table. It sounded like a block of wood.
Agatha made a face.
“I’m cooking up some beans and bacon.” Tom grabbed a pan and slapped it down on the stove.
Agatha’s face grew even more twisted. “Bleh, hard-tack it is.”
“I thought you liked my beans!”
“The first time. Second time they were okay too, but after the fifth meal, I have to say they started to become just a mite repetitive.”
“That’s it, I’ve had enough abuse for one day.” Tom turned the heat off the pan. “I’m gonna hit the town and get myself a nice steak and potatoes in a few hours anyhow.”
Willow sighed. “I wonder if they’ll have pork pie.”
Agatha paused with the biscuit half-in her mouth. “Oh don’t! You’ve got me drooling now. How are we gonna pay for all this?”
“I was gonna talk to you about that. Armoury has way more than we could ever need, why not sell a rifle or two?”
“Yeah, I’ll go have a look.” Agatha set the hard-tack down on the table and turned to go.
“Lock our sidearms away while you’re at it.” Tom tossed her his revolver.
“You sure?” Agatha felt the revolver at her side. “I-I don’t feel right without it on.”
“It’s a big town, we’ll be safe enough.”
“Yeah… okay.” She ducked out of the doorway.
Tom rubbed his jaw, it was starting to develop some stubble, but he was loath to use another man’s razor. “You reckon she’ll stay on?”
Willow nodded. “Yep, she’s got nowhere else to be. She’ll grouse about it, but she’ll come ‘round.”
“And the two of you?”
“That’s a little trickier. Nikki wants to stay, but says we got obligations.”
“What do you say?”
Willow sighed. “I say our family’s prolly all dead. That means we’re free.”
“Free? Why wouldn’t you be free?”
Willow looked away. “Oh, just family debts… you know.”
Tom was about to respond when the zeppelin gondola started to shudder rhythmically. A deep rumble came from the starboard engine. He dashed for the bridge with Willow close behind.
The door to the bridge was locked so Tom hammered with his fist. As he was pounding the shaking and noise ceased. Hecate went eerily silent without any engines running, just the hiss of wind past the canopy to let them know they were still moving.
“Who is it?” Nikki’s voice from the other side.
“Open the damned door Nikki! What’s going on!”
The door clicked and swung open.
“Engine troubles.” Nikki slid back into the pilot’s chair.
“Obviously! Why was the door locked?”
Nikki raised an eyebrow. “You told me to lock up when you or Agatha wasn’t around.”
“Right… right. What’s the situation?”
“Looks like the engine ran out of oil. I couln’t see it ‘cause that gauge is smashed.” She waved at the array of mostly-broken dials above her station. “I think I got ‘er shut down before the engine was completely destroyed. We’ll have to glide the rest of the way and hope the boys manning the mooring tower are lookin’ sharp today.”
“You’re kidding me. Glide a fifty ton airship in, close enough to a dead-stop that a half-dozen boys crewing the tower can reign it in?”
“Do we have a choice?”
Tom glanced out the bridge windows. The town was rapidly approaching. “How long ‘till we hit… err land.”
Nikki gave an aggravated sigh. “About five minutes. Look, this isn’t as easy as it looks. I’m trying to gauge the wind, bleed off some speed by fishtailing back and forth, while keeping enough momentum to make it there. Is there something else you could be doing?”
Tom nodded. “I’ll double up the rigging.” He turned and raced from the bridge. Finally something he knew better than the girls aboard. He’d been a rig-monkey for two years, but even with that practice it would be tight getting four extra guylines in place in under five minutes.
The last line clipped in place just as the airship was caught by the mooring towers. The boys down below were sharp, they had six of the lines tied off in a matter of seconds. The stays groaned, cables stretched to their fullest and one of the towers leaned alarmingly far. Tom was thrown forward from his perch, but clung tightly to the rigging with calloused hands. When they’d settled in place he hung for a moment, suspended over the town of Havenvale. Best view in the house.
Tom swung his legs up to the rigging and scrambled down to Hecate’s outer deck.
“Are you crazy!” The Portmaster came storming onto the top of the nearest mooring tower. “Damn near wrecked us you maniacs!”
Tom smiled back. “My apologies. We didn’t have much choice, lost our last engine about five minutes ago.”
“Oh….” The look of anger on the Portmaster’s face faded. “Well, you come to the right place then. We can fix durn near anything, if you’ve got the price.”
Tom grabbed a spare bit of rigging that hung down from the envelope and swung across to the tower. “How’s the market for lead these days?”
The Portmaster frowned. “Look, can I talk to your Captain? I’d rather not have to repeat myself.”
“He is the Captain.” Willow copied Tom’s move and swung across to the tower.
“Is not!” called Agatha from the deck.
The Portmaster looked from one to another of the teens. “Well, is he or ain’t he?”
Tom glared at Agatha and mouthed, “Not now.” She folded her arms and frowned.
“I am the Captain. Hecate is our salvage after the previous crew was wiped out in a Dragger attack at Milton.”
The Portmaster whistled. “That so? We was wonderin’ why the regular flight never came in from Milton. How bad was it?”
“Bad…. Far as I know the four of us are the only ones to make it out sane and alive.”
The boys manning the tower had swung a gangplank across to the Hecate’s deck. Nikki and Agatha walked across to join them.
The Portmaster sized up the crew and smiled. “You’re the whole crew? Just you four?”
Tom beamed. “Yep, Hecate was banged up pretty bad, but we got ‘er here.”
The Portmaster’s grin grew two sizes larger. “Is that a fact?” He hastily wiped the smile from his face and checked his pocketwatch. “Aright, I’ll contact the Guild. A rep’ll meet you here in, say two hours?”
“Sounds good.” Tom slung the long canvas bag with the rifles over his shoulder and climbed down to the ground.
When the rest of the crew arrived he gave them a big grin. “We made it! Time to celebrate.”
Havenvale was as dirty a town as Tom had seen in his travels. There were berths for a dozen airships, but only three in port aside from Hecate. Beyond the port were rows of machine shops and hangars. Sparks flew from welding torches, hammers beat metal into shape, and apprentices ran in every direction carrying a variety of parts. Beyond that was a row of saloons and a few shops for the visiting aircrew. The buildings in town were mostly five or six stories high, made from brick and mortar, every surface varnished a dark hue from years of greasy smoke. There were a few refuge towers on the outskirts, but with the large buildings in town, people would simply climb to the roofs during a Mist attack.
The packed-earth streets and boardwalks bustled with activity, most of it on foot, though horse-drawn wagons were common. There were even a few horseless trucks and autos.
A little guy, about Willow’s height, wearing a flat-cap and suspenders waited outside Havenvale’s telegraph office with a toolbox and large duffle. “Hey, you from the Airship that just docked?”
Tom nodded. “Yeah.”
“Can you ask your Captain if  he could use a hand in the machine room? I’m a journeyman mech, looking for a berth. I work real hard and don’t eat much.”
Tom frowned. “I’m the damn Captain, is that so hard to believe?”
Agatha shook her head. “No you’re not.”
Tom rounded on her. “Look Agatha, I’m getting sick of your attitude! I’m the only one with years of flight experience. Who else is suited to the job?”
“Two years of fixing rigging does not prepare you to command an airship.”
“Who led you three safely out of Milton? Who got us aboard and free from the Draggers?”
“I freed Hecate from the Draggers, remember?”
“Yeah, good shooting, but who told you to shoot?”
Agatha rolled her eyes. “You told me to make my shots count. What kind of lame-brained advice is that anyhow? Like I was just going to waste them doing some target practice? I was the one who figured out to shoot for the bow line!”
“If I’d known you could shoot like that, maybe I’d have thought of it first!”
“Well you didn’t.” Agatha paused, breathing heavily. “Way I figure it, four of us each have an equal share in Hecate. We should vote on who’s Captain.”
“I’m the Captain. Mine’s the only vote that counts!”
The small guy coughed into his hand. “If I can interject here a second….”
Tom barely glanced at him. “No!” He began to move up the street, and the others followed. “We shouldn’t carry on like this in public.”
Agatha nodded. “We do need a mechanic though.”
Tom rolled his eyes. “Fine, we need a mechanic, but not him.”
“Why not him?” Agatha crossed her arms.
“Because he’s a kid! And a liar to boot. Since when does a kid that age get a journeyman’s ticket.”
Nikki slipped in between Agatha and Tom. “He looked about your age if you ask me, just short.”
Tom gritted his teeth. “Even if he’s my age, it’s too young to be a journeyman.”
Nikki clicked her tongue. “Still, it’s worth talking to him. Maybe he’s tellin’ the truth… and we need a mechanic.”
Tom growled in exasperation. “This is a full scale mutiny! Are you all against me?”
Willow winked at him and saluted. “You have my support Captain Tom.”
Nikki frowned. “Are you going to give him a chance?”
Agatha gave an exasperated growl. “Can’t be a mutiny. You’re not the Captain.”
“In order. Thank you. No. And I’ve heard enough of that horse-crap for one day.” Tom stopped in front of a pawn shop and unslung the bag of weapons from his shoulder. “This looks like a good place.”
Half an hour later, the four of them sat around a table in a quiet saloon, patting comfortably full bellies.
Tom banged his mug down on the table. “Now that was a fine meal.”
Agatha leaned forward. “We can’t keep this up though. If we pawn off everything on Hecate how are we going to fuel her, or get her fixed up?”
“Obviously. Ain’t nothin’ a little work won’t pay off.” Tom sighed and leaned back. “We’ll be fine, once we pay off the repairs there’s gonna be enough lead left over to get us some operating cash.”
A portly gentleman in a bowler and waistcoat loomed over the table. “Pardon me ladies and gentleman, but I’ve been informed that you are the crew of the Hecate?”
Tom nodded. “Yup, that’s us.”
The man sat at the table without invitation. “Extraordinary, so it’s just the four of you?”
The whole crew nodded and grinned proudly.
“I heard a rumour that you’ve some lead bars you wish to sell, is that correct?”
Tom sat straighter. “You heard right mister. You buyin’?”
The man nodded and proffered a hand. “Ponderoy Charkart, I happen to deal in all manner of goods.”
Tom shook with the man, which he found highly distasteful. Charkart’s hands were cold and damp. He wiped his palm on his pants under the table. “Logbook says we have five long tons of lead aboard. If you’re offerin’ a better price than the mechanics, it’s all yours.”
Charkart whistled. “That is quite the load. I’ll tell you what, I can’t do business of this magnitude on a dry throat.” He waved the bartender over. “A round of beer for our table, your best brew for my new friends.”
Willow wrinkled her nose. “I don’t like beer.”
“Sarsaparilla for the young lady.”
The drinks came fast, and the bartender handed them out along with a big bowl of salty pretzels.
“Now, let’s drink to profitable partnerships, and get down to brass bolts shall we?” Charkart raised his mug. “Cheers.”
The others around the table echoed Charkart’s toast, and copied him as he downed half his drink.
“Right, that hit the spot didn’t it? Are you feeling ready to do business now?”
Truth told, Tom wasn’t feeling good at all. He blinked and shook his head to cure his double-vision, but that only made things worse. “Shii you fizzed our drins you baser.” His tongue was two sizes too large in his mouth.
Charkart leaned forward as Tom heard the gentle thumps of his crewmates sliding to the floor. “I’ve been called worse. Sweet dreams lad.”

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Monday, September 17, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-1, C-4

Episode 1
Chapter 4

“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.
Tom sniggered.
“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

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-1, C-3

Episode 1
Chapter 3

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.

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