Sunday, October 28, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-5, 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.
Hecate has a mysterious stowaway, a young woman named Ishara, who rarely comes out of hiding.
In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to a crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. They did lose what they thought was a near-worthless cargo of lead bars. It turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Now Tom and the crew are going back to try and recover their lost cargo.

Episode 5
Chapter 1

Tom awoke from a deep sleep to find a girl straddling him. Not normally a bad way to wake up, but this one had a crazed look in her eyes, and she radiated cold.
“Good morning sleepyhead.” She had a dark complexion, silky black hair, and wore only a light cotton dress.
“Ishara?” Tom sat up in surprise. “It is Ishara isn’t it?”
“You guessed it, you guessed it…” she replied in a singsong voice.
“What are you doing here?”
“I like you Tom. You’re a man of your word.”
“I appreciate that, but it really doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“Oh!” She looked puzzled. “Oh, oh, ooooh. Yessss I’m here for a reason.” She stared at him expectantly.
Tom flared his nostrils and tried to keep his frustration from showing. “And that reason is?”
Ishara frowned as though trying very hard to concentrate. “You’re in danger Tom. Soon you’ll face a choice Tom. Mustn’t be greedy Tom.”
“Where have you been hiding?”
“Everywhere and nowhere Tom.” She giggled. “You’ll never find me if I want to hide.”
Tom took a deep breath. “Look, I’m tryin’ to understand, but none of the words comin’ out of your mouth make any sense. Why should I believe anything you say?”
Ishara put a finger to her lower lip and plucked at it. “Buhb, buhb, buhb. Oh! The drawer. Haven’t found that yet, have you?”
“Enough Ishara, I think you need help. Please don’t hide anymore, I’m sure Nikki, or Agatha, or someone might know what to do. Come with me, we’ll go see them.”
Ishara looked terrified. “No! Nooooo.” She crawled back to the far corner of Tom’s bed. “Can’t… can’t see too many people at once. Even one… even you… hard to think. Drawer under cabinet.” She pointed to the low chest of drawers next to the bed. “Bottom panel, slide right, then pull.”
“Ishara, what’s wrong with you? Will you let me help?”
“Beyond your help Tom. Helping myself, slowly. Takes time. I’m not all here, you see?” She laughed, as though that were a terrific joke.
Someone knocked at the door. “Tom?” It was Nikki’s voice.
Tom glanced at the door. “Yeah?” When he looked back, Ishara was gone.
The door opened. “Tom? You talking to someone in here?”
Tom sat, mouth agape. “Ishara… she was here a minute ago… I think.”
Nikki’s face turned stormy. “Ishara was here? What were you two up to? I heard laughter.”
“No, it wasn’t like that. She needs help.”
Nikki arched a brow. “And you’re the one to give it to her I suppose?”
“No, not like that! She’s wrong in the head. Where the hell did she go?”
Nikki put a finger to her lips and leaned forward. She whipped the bedclothes off.
Tom lay there naked for an instant before tumbling off the side of the bed and scrambling for his clothes.
“Honestly Tom, you got nothin’ to be ashamed of.” She laughed and peered under the bed. “You sure there was someone here?”
“Yeah… I mean I think so. I was asleep… maybe it was a dream? Powerful strange dream if it was.”
“Well nevermind. Day’s startin’, an’ Willow has coffee a-brewin’.”
“Coming, just gimme a minute.”
Nikki nodded and shut the door behind her.
Tom scrambled into the rest of his clothes. He was about to follow Nikki when he paused. It wouldn’t hurt to check out the chest of drawers.
The panel gave with a sharp click, and the drawer opened just enough that he could gain purchase on the edges. Tom slid the drawer all the way out. Inside the red felt lined compartment was the strangest pistol he’d ever seen. It had a very long barrel with a feed-tube underneath and a lever mechanism, like on a lever-action rifle, that looked to be manipulated with the index and middle fingers.
There was also a gun-belt and a few hundred rounds of ammunition. One of the previous captains of Hecate liked to be prepared.
Tom went to the galley and slapped the pistol down in front of Agatha. “What is this?”
Agatha looked up from her breakfast. “Volcanic pistol. They were popular for a while, twenty years or so back. Fell out of fashion. More accurate than a revolver, but slow rate of fire, finicky ammunition and lots of jams.” She wiped her hands on her pants and picked the pistol up. After checking it was unloaded, she worked the action, opened it up and checked the insides, looked down the barrel. Finally she put it down on the table and frowned at it, like it had done something to annoy her.
“Well? Is it worth carrying, or should I stick to the revolver?”
Agatha sniffed. “Normal volcanic, I’d say no… but this one. I ain’t seen nothin’ like it, I’ll tell you that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Remember how Shorty described the engines on Hecate? Look on the outside to be normal, but on the inside they’re just perfect, flawlessly made. This pistol’s like that. Nine rounds, bet it shoots straight as hell, and the action’s slick as whale snot on an iceberg.”
“Where’d it come from?”
Agatha exhaled between her teeth. “Beats me. There’s no stamp on it, an’ I don’t know of anyplace in Europe or the Americas can do such a fine job.”
Tom nodded, and strapped on the belt for the volcanic pistol. It felt comforting at his side, like they were meant for eachother. “Just another Hecate mystery I suppose.”
“Yeah, I heard you had a run-in with Ishara.” Agatha grinned. “Nikki was pretty steamed.”
“I think… I’m pretty sure it was a dream.”
“I’m not sure if she’d be more, or less upset about that.”
The door to Dog’s bunkroom was unlatched, so it swung open when Tom rapped on it. “Comin’ up on Bedford in an hour. We don’t have a lot, but I can give you a few guilder to get you on your feet. You shouldn’t have much trouble findin’ work.”
Dog sat, lotus-style on his bunk, his face a mask of calm, his eyes closed. “You would prefer it if I left?”
“You’re a useful hand in a tight spot Dog, but we’re taking risks you don’t need to take on.”
“I would like to help, if you will have me.”
“Hell yeah we’d like your help. It ain’t your fight though.”
Dog opened his eyes and regarded Tom calmly. “I prefer to avoid fighting, but you saved me. I owe you a debt I can never repay.” A smile curled at the edges of his mouth. “And I like it here. If you will have me, I would like to stay.”
“You don’t owe us nothin’ Dog. We just did what was right.” Tom offered his hand. “But I’m glad to have you aboard.”
Dog took the hand, swung off the bed and threw his arms around Tom, leaving Tom’s arms dangling awkwardly at his sides. When he released Tom, a brilliant smile shone against his dark face. “Then this is my new home.”
Bedford was a mere pimple of a town, but it was the closest place to Havenvale with docking towers.
Tom weighted one corner of the chart down with Sir Furrybottom, and unrolled the other end. “There’s a clear road through here. Me and Agatha will hitch a ride with a caravan, or hoof it.” The whole crew gathered around, jostling for space in the crowded bridge.
“I will join you.” Dog crossed his arms. “If there are Draggers on the ground I will be best put to use there.”
“Better with a weapon.” Shorty grinned up at the hulking ex-gladiator. He produced a finely crafted gladius and scabbard from behind his back. “This was meant as a good-bye present, but seeing as you’re staying, I guess it’s a welcome-aboard gift.”
Dog smiled and hefted the sword. The blade was mirror-smooth steel, it had a brass pommel shaped into a snarling dog, and finely polished hardwood grips. “This is beautiful work, Shorty. Many thanks.”
“It’s just stock steel, I wanted to make it Japanese-style, folding the metal, but I don’t have the gear on board for that.” Shorty glanced meaningfully at Tom.
Tom rolled his eyes. “We can’t afford a blast furnace for your hobbies, and even if we could, it wouldn’t fit.”
“Well, I was thinking, if we expanded the machine room into the cargo bay we could—”
“Ain’t gonna happen Shorty,” Tom cut in.
Shorty shrugged. “Anyhow, next one I’ll find a forge and fold proper for you Dog. You familiar with Japanese swords?”
Dog smiled. “Only from the wrong end I am afraid. This will be more than adequate, but thank you for the thought Shorty.”
“You bring Tom and Agatha back safe, that’s thanks enough.”
Tom cleared his throat. “As I was saying. We’ll go overland. The rest of you wait here and man the telegraph office, we’ll send a message when we know where and when we need you to pick up the cargo.”
Nikki frowned. “I don’t like it Tom.”
Tom put an arm across her shoulder. “Don’t you worry, we’ll be just fine. You’re in charge while we’re gone.”
Agatha nodded. “We’ll be fine Nikki. The three of us can take care of ourselves. Well,” she glanced admiringly at Dog, “two of us can at any rate.”
Shorty glared at Dog. “I could go too. I know how to take care of myself.” He put his hand on the butt of the sawed-off shotgun he carried like a pistol.
Tom shook his head. “No, sorry but you can’t keep up if we have to run.”
Shorty glanced between Agatha and Dog, his brows knitting into a deepening frown. “I can keep up, I’d be fine.”
“I said no Shorty. That’s final.”
“You take care now Tom.” Nikki rubbed at her eyes. She had slipped in to Tom’s room in the pre-dawn light. Thankfully he was already awake and dressed, too full of nervous energy to sleep in. Finding a caravan had been easy, the few traders who risked the overland route were more than happy to have some extra security. They were set to leave on the eight-hour trip at dawn, and if there weren’t too many delays they’d arrive in Havenvale well before sunset.
“I’ll be fine.” Tom checked his volcanic pistol for the fifth time. He’d practised with it a few times, and true to Agatha’s word it was an accurate little package. She was still a far better shot, but at least he could hit what he was aiming at most of the time.
“I’m serious Tom.” Nikki threw her arms around his neck. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Oh, come on. I’ll be back in a couple of days. Nothin’ to worry about.”
Nikki pulled hard on his neck, so his eyes came level with hers. “I’m not letting you leave without you promising to come back.”
“I’ll come back.”
She dug her nails into the nape of his neck. “Promise me.”
“All right, I promise! I’ll come back, safe and sound.”
“No foolish risks, right? It’s only money.”
Only enough money to buy and sell a large city. “I promise, I’ll take care of myself, and I’ll telegraph, soon as we get to Havenvale.”
“You’d better. I have a bad feeling about all this.” Nikki pulled him close and kissed him hungrily.
When she finally released her grip, Tom took a gasp of air and put his arm out for balance. Before he could say anything further she was gone.
“Coffee?” The wagoneer offered the pot back to Tom. He was sitting with Dog and Agatha on the tailgate of the rear-most wagon of a ten wagon long caravan. The mid-morning sun dappled the road through the trees.
“Oh, yes please.” Tom poured a mug for himself and passed the pot to Agatha, she took a large mug as well, but Dog turned it down.
About four hours out of Bedford it was shaping up to be a nice quiet trip. The sun had warmed everything to a pleasant degree, birds and small animals chirped and sang from the trees, if only they hadn’t needed such an early start it would be near perfect.
Tom yawned and passed the coffee pot back to the wagoneer. “Thanks Kent, I don’t know how you do it, gettin’ up so early for these runs.”
Kent leaned back over his shoulder to take the pot. “I don’t mind much. Pay’s good ‘cause nobody else wants the work, an’ the trail’s mostly safe ‘cept around Black Lake.”
Agatha nodded. “You let us know when we’re gettin’ close to Black Lake then.”
Kent laughed. “Oh you can’t miss it. We take the ridge road to stay as high as possible. Black Lake will be the dark pit to the right, completely covered in Mist.”
“Sounds… inviting.” Tom yawned again, and downed the last of his lukewarm coffee. “I’m goin’ to stretch my legs for a bit.” He hopped off the tailgate and walked behind the wagon, it was a brisk pace, enough to get his blood flowing. They were travelling through a wooded hillside, steep incline forced the road through a series of switchbacks.
Dog joined him. “You think we will see Draggers?”
“Dunno, but if there’s Mist around, it’s likely.”
“They die like men?”
“Yeah,” Tom nodded, remembering Airman Giles Whitworth, his transformation into a Dragger, how the knife in Tom’s hand had ended his life when it reached his heart, “stronger, faster, completely insane, but they die like regular people.”
“How do you tell a Dragger from a normal person?”
“They just come at you… sometimes they can be patient, but when they come you’ll know. All they care about is killing, they don’t even mind dying, and when they’re closing in for a kill, they can’t help themselves but laugh.”
Agatha set her mug aside and hopped off the tailgate to join the others.
Dog stopped in the road, eyeing the forest on the downhill side closely. “Do they ever stalk their prey, building larger numbers before they attack?”
Tom frowned. “Usually they’re not that smart… but sometimes, yeah. Why do you ask?”
Dog glanced over his shoulder at the receding caravan. “Because I think we are being followed.”

 <----- Previous          Start from the Beginning          Next ----->

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-4, C-3

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.

Episode 4
Chapter 1

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?”
“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.”
“Shut up!”
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.”
“And Dog?”
“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

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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Orphans of the Celestial Sea, E-4, C-2

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.
But we’re not going back to the crew of Hecate just yet. We turn our gaze to the east, the coliseum of Bensalem, capital of Atlantis, where a young man named Dog is badly injured after defeating a giant of a man, but he still has two of the coliseum’s finest to defeat if he wants to live.

Episode 4
Prologue Part 2

Dog circled Kaz, neither swordsman stepping within range of the other. The sun beat down across his shoulders.
Every whisper of feet on sand came clear to Dog’s ears. The audience had fallen into a dead hush. He could feel thousands of eyes prickling into his skin, behind each pair the same thought, could this young upstart actually win?
Dog made a quick lunge forward and stepped back, and felt something tear inside his chest. The pain was nearly unbearable, even with the dampening techniques Quan Fa had taught him. Kaz didn’t even flinch. He held his sword in front of him, tip downward and circled Dog with purposeful steps.
“Hai!” Kaz lunged forward and lashed out with his sword. Dog darted back and the tip missed his skin by a hair.
Breath came hard, just circling with Kaz was making Dog wheeze for air. No matter how deeply he tried to inhale, there just didn’t seem like enough. His whole chest was a mass of bruises, and he was pretty certain many of his ribs were broken. Every step, every breath was agony, but he did his best to tune it out.
“Hai!” Kaz lunged again. This time Dog was a little slow. The tip of the blade scratched his chest and stomach, leaving a shallow cut, beading crimson behind.
Every gasp seemed to give Dog less air than the last. He staggered around like a drunk, coughing up more blood. The tip of his sword dropped, and then dragged in the sand, as Dog lost the strength to hold it aloft and circle with Kaz at the same time.
Kaz frowned. Probably reluctant to kill such a weakened foe. Kaz was not an animal, he would never be an animal, not like Dog. Kaz steeled himself, his muscles tensed. He was going to make one more lunge and Dog couldn’t dodge, he could barely stand upright.
Dog’s mind drifted for a moment. Back to his first day with Quan Fa as his trainer. He’d been taking a beating from Quan Fa’s wooden sword. Somehow, no matter what he’d tried Quan Fa had anticipated. Dog had grown frustrated, and he’d thrown his sword at his trainer. Quan Fa had simply stepped aside as the wooden blade spun harmlessly past, then he’d proceeded to thrash Dog to the brink of death. Even though he’d been barely conscious, Dog always remembered his master’s words.
As he’d lain there, beaten and broken, Quan Fa had bent down and said, “Dog, you never throw your sword. One time in a thousand, you may get lucky, the rest of the time you are leaving yourself defenceless. Never throw your sword.”
Kaz stood there, frozen. The crowd urged him on, roaring for Dog’s blood. Kaz took a step forward for his final attack, and Dog threw his sword.
Dog never knew why Kaz didn’t simply sidestep the clumsily thrown blade. Perhaps he’d been distracted, or maybe he’d just wanted to die. In any case, the weapon spun through the air toward him. It seemed to take forever, hanging there, frozen in time. Kaz raised his sword high over his head, and Dog’s blade spun on.
“Hai!” Kaz shouted, and began to draw his blade downward just as the tip of Dog’s sword entered his chest. Kaz’s face twisted into a brief smile, then he collapsed.
Dog lay beside Kaz, gasping for air. He couldn’t remember falling. One moment he was standing, the next he was not. His vision swam with black dots. He felt the toe of a boot prodding him. “You’re not done yet.” Zeuxidamus stood over him, haloed by the sun.
Everything was a blur. Dog blinked to try and clear his vision.
Zeuxidamus was just a dark smudge walking circles around him, orating aloud for the audience’s benefit. “Emperor Ellil brought me out of retirement so I could kill you.”
Dog fought his way to his hands and knees, reached out for his sword and pulled it free from Kaz’s corpse. A coughing fit overcame him and he collapsed back to the ground.
“You’ve killed the first two, but you won’t kill me…. I am the only gladiator ever to go undefeated over five-hundred matches.” He turned to face the Emperor’s viewing box. “I killed for you! Hundreds of men, for your entertainment! And you promised me a quiet retirement, you said no more killing! Now I know what your word is worth.” Zeuxidamus spat on the sand of the coliseum. The crowd gasped.
“All of you! You’re fat and lazy! Slaves do the work, slaves entertain you, die for your pleasure!” Zeuxidamus backed several paces away, and lowered his trident toward Dog’s chest.
Dog tried to rise to his feet, but there wasn’t any air. He stumbled and fell hard on the ground, tried to rise again, but there was nothing left.
“The Emperor wants you dead Dog!” Zeuxidamus charged across the sand. “But as far as I’m concerned, he can get off his fat ass and come do it himself!” Zeuxidamus reversed the trident. He ran toward Dog with the three tines pointing straight toward his own chest. At the last moment, he lowered the butt of the weapon to the ground. It caught and held. Zeuxidamus continued his suicide charge, impaling himself on his own trident.
Dog collapsed into darkness. He could hear the sand blowing across the coliseum with a slight breeze. Everyone in the audience was holding their breath in shock. Footsteps approached, then rough hands rolled him onto a stretcher.
“He’s still alive.”
“Get him to the ambulance then.”
“Emperor wants him dead.”
“Rules say we do what we can for the live ones. If Emperor Ellil wants him dead, he’ll have to try again.”
There was a jolt of pain across his chest as the men lifted the stretcher and Dog blacked out.
“Collapsed lung! Get me a chest tube.”
Dog was staring at a ceiling in a brightly lit room. People bustled around him, but everything seemed fuzzy, unreal.
“Chest tube, doctor.”
Something stabbed deep into Dog’s ribcage and he felt the pressure in his chest subside.
“He’s coming around.”
“Give him another shot of morphine.”
“Same dose?”
Dog strained to sit up. Something was happening to him… his thinking was fuzzy, he’d been hurt in the arena.
“Get it in him now, before he pulls this tube out!”
A light prick in the shoulder. Warmth spread through Dog’s body, he relaxed and slipped back into darkness.
>toc< >toc< >toc< Repetitive sound, a little like wooden swords clashing, but more regular. It was approaching Dog’s bed. He opened his eyes. Curtains hung round him, and there was a low murmur of several quiet conversations at once.
The noise stopped, and his curtain was pulled aside by a grey-haired nurse. Dog tried to think back. Memories came slowly, bouncing through his mind in random order, reassembling into the full picture one piece at a time.
“I see you’re awake again. Feeling better dear?”
Dog tried to sit up, but his arms were pinned down. He looked at his wrists and found they were bound to the rails of his bed by steel manacles. “How long have I been here?”
“Oh, bless your heart. You ask me that every day.” The nurse walked to the foot of Dog’s bed and pulled up a clipboard. “Almost a month now. You’ll be back in the arena in no time.”
Back in the arena…. After last time the Emperor would be livid. Dog grinned as he remembered some of the things Zeuxidamus said before he died. More than livid. Ellil would be in a frothing rage. He’d probably throw Dog into the arena naked and hobbled with his wrists chained behind his back next time.
“Thank you for fixing me up.”
“Dear me, it’s the least we can do.”
“I am sorry that all of your hard work will be undone as soon as I get back.”
The nurse patted Dog’s hand. “Now now, don’t you worry about that love. Time for your medicine.” Before Dog could object she’d stabbed him in the shoulder with a hypodermic needle. She pressed the plunger home.
Warmth and tiredness spread through Dog’s bones.
The nurse slid a tray of food over his bed. “Now, you eat quick dearie, before those meds knock you out.”
Dog was already starting to feel woozy. He looked at the food. “What did you give me?” When he looked back up the nurse was gone, and the curtain swung gently.
“Wake up Dog!” A splash of something cold hit his face.
Motion. Bouncing around on rough streets. Dog opened his eyes. He was in the back of an ambulance, transport back to the arena no doubt.
Quan Fa was there. He shook Dog by the shoulders. “Wake up!”
“I am awake.”
“Ahh, good. You have to hurry.”
“Hurry where?”
“Next stop, corner of Peta and Kibrat Street. You get out there. Make sure no one sees you. Make way to Kanpa boulevard and turn right. Go until you see the green lantern in a window. Knock on the window and wait.”
“Master I do not understand.”
“You will, in time.”
Dog was surprised to find he could sit up. All of his restraints were gone. “Where do I go after that?”
“They will tell you, better if I do not know.”
“What will I do? I have no trade.”
“Just escape, leave Atlantis. When you have experienced life outside, you will see what is rotten inside. When you know right from wrong, do what you can to help fix this place.”
“Me? I would not know where to start.”
Quan Fa nodded. “Reading a thousand books will not teach as much as travelling a thousand miles.”
“What does that mean? Master, I have no time for your riddles.”
The brakes squealed and the ambulance began to slow.
“This is it Dog, when it stops, you must go. You will understand what you need when you need it.”
Dog frowned, but he knew from experience that pressing Quan Fa would lead nowhere. “They will kill you if they find out you helped me.”
“Then so be it. I have lived long, but you have the chance to live well.” Quan Fa opened the rear door of the ambulance and shoved Dog into the night. “Peace be with you.” He closed the doors, and the ambulance drove away in a cloud of diesel exhaust.
Dog was left standing on a wide boulevard, lined with buildings, columns, and open terraces all made of white marble that glowed in the moonlight. Rows of trees and hedges lined the sides of the road. In the distance he could hear music and laughter.
The warm night air was sweet with the scent of lush gardens. He stood for a while, breathing the strange new smells in, staring about him in wonderment, frozen to the spot in bemusement. Just like that he was a free man, his destiny in his own hands for the first time in his life.
For the first half-hour his walk was peaceful, but Dog’s mind would not stay quiet. The brisk air, and the exercise cleared up the muzziness he’d felt from the drugs. He wondered if Quan Fa would be okay, why Zeuxidamus had given his life like that, what life outside Atlantis would be like, or for that matter, what he would do when he got there. All he’d ever been good at was fighting. It was all he remembered.
A motorcar approached at high speed, and Dog stepped back into the hedge he was walking beside. He was wearing only a pair of short, undyed breeches and his dark skin helped him blend in with the night.
The vehicle shone a searchlight at the side of the road, but it sped past too quickly for the passengers to see Dog.
A few minutes later, another automobile cruised past. This one was moving more slowly. Dog got some deep scratches worming his way back into the hedge.
Over the next hour, dozens of vehicles crisscrossed his path. In the distance, Dog even saw a couple of airships, their giant spotlights lancing through the night, scanning the streets. In the distance he could hear men shouting and dogs baying.
It took another hour of worming his way from hedge to hedge and darting across open streets for him make it the last five blocks. The green lamp was barely more than a flicker. If he hadn’t been looking for it he’d never have noticed.
When he knocked on the window, he was greeted by a grizzled old slave. “We’ve been expecting you.”
Dog moved from house to house over the next weeks. Walking from one to the next during the night. Always he was greeted by a slave and guided to a cellar, a barn, a hayrick. They fed him, clothed him, told him of their lives when they had a moment to spare, and let him know where to find the next stop on the path.
At last in a villa near the mountains, the slave who was caring for him, a middle-aged woman, said, “This is the end of the road.” She pointed at a row of mountains in the distance. “Through that pass and you’re out of the Inner Precincts. I’ve been told you can see Aetheopica from the other side. Go there, and find passage away from Atlantis.”
She gave him cheese and a blanket, and after two nights of sleeping rough, Dog found himself lost among throngs of people in the big city. He’d have felt comfort there, anonymous among so many others of different colours and sizes, except that his face was plastered onto every wall, in every alley. There were words below his picture. When he first arrived he asked a stranger what they meant.
The man told him, “Wanted, dead or alive.” He turned to look Dog in the face, went white and backed away slowly. After a few paces, the man turned and ran, screaming for the constables.
After that Dog kept to the back alleys, hiding his face, and ducking out of sight every time another person approached.
So, when he heard a large number of people running toward him at high speed, it was only natural for him to duck into the nearest alley, and hide himself behind the pile of garbage bins he found there.
“In here!” someone called.
He heard three sets of footsteps run past him and stop, then a larger group ground to a stop directly in front of his hiding spot.
A commanding voice cried out, “Raise your hands so we can see them, and come out of there peacefully. We have you surrounded. There is no possible escape.”

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