Among the great city states in the sky, no guild is more respected than the Aviators’ Guild. Those heroes and heroines who tie civilization together; piloting their airships along the bird roads.
In recent history, no pilot is more famous than my mother Eve Swift, aviatrix and one-time mayor of New Frisco. And no mystery so great as her disappearance on an archaeological expedition, leaving me, her daughter, orphaned.
On the day I turn twenty-one, I receive two packages by post: a mysterious brown—paper parcel from my Uncle Felix and a slim envelope from the Aviators’ Guild.
Frantically, I tear open the envelope to extract the small card inside. I catch a whiff of fresh ink as I turn the smooth card over and over in my hand. As expected, the card is a license that permits “Nina Swift—Aviatrix” to pilot airships. The first and lowest rung on my piloting career. To me, it is like gold and my heart sings.
I kiss the card in triumph, slot it carefully into the leather wallet provided, and place it in a pocket of my flight jacket. Time to put my long cherished plan into action—today I am going in search of my long lost mother.
Scooping up the paper wrapped package, from the post office counter I toss it carelessly into my shoulder bag, unopened, as I step out into the street. I have work to do. I hoist the bag onto my shoulder and stride down the street to my crucial meeting at the Square Balloon café.
I stop on the way to complete a financial transaction. At twenty-one, the state no longer controls my mother’s legacy, so I can spend what is left of her money in any way I like. And what a magnificent purchase it is—the second stage of my plan.
I stop to examine myself in a shop window: tall, slender, auburn haired. Dressed and booted in my leather flying gear, some would call me striking—I call it angular. I’ve taken enough care with my appearance today to wow the boys.
When seeking to drive a hard bargain, looks are just another weapon in a girl’s armory.
I enter the Square Balloon, a favorite hang—out for us apprentices from the Aviators’ Guild. Compared to the bright sunlight outside, the café looks dark and bland. Polished bare boards gleam under my feet and pictures of famous airships, aviators, and aviatrixes line the walls in an attempt to brighten things up. The tangy smell of coffee and sweet smell of chocolate battle each other in the air. I inhale deeply. It’s like coming home.
I order my usual: strong coffee, no cream.
Scud and Fernando are already seated around a window table, flight jackets hung on the back of their chairs. They’re getting to know each other, though they aren’t saying much, which is no surprise. Hot mugs steam in front of them on the scrubbed wooden table. A coffee for Fernando and a hot chocolate for Scud.
Fernando stares unwaveringly at Scud, which causes Scud to look anywhere except directly at Fernando.
I collect my drink, slide in between the boys, and take a deep breath. “Hi, guys.” Now for stage three of my plan.
Scud tosses his mop of brown hair out of his eyes and looks past me, “Oh…yes…morning, Nina.” Scud never meets anyone’s gaze, even mine, his best and oldest friend.
“Fernando, this is Scud. Scud, this is Fernando.”
They know of each other, of course. That’s why I’m annoyed with Fernando’s behavior.
He thrusts his hand straight across the table, smiling radiantly. “Hi, how you doing, mate?”
Scud stares out the window, ignoring him.
Fernando turns his attention to me. “What’s this all about, Nina?” Swarthy, full-lipped, and handsome, he has auburn hair like mine. His dark brown eyes are deep watery wells you can just dive into.
I have never been one of his conquests, though I might admit to flirting with him once or twice at parties. He’s just not my type. The way my parents behaved has left me with a deep desire for someone trustworthy. Someone I can respect. Fernando is neither of these things, though he might be my equal.
“Well, if my mother was here—” I catch Scud rolling his eyes, but I don’t let it put me off. “She would say, ‘A great opportunity has arisen and you are the lucky recipients’.”
Fernando leans across the table. “Meaning?”
I stare longingly into those deep brown pools. Sometimes I just want to throw myself in them without a care; then I remember who owns those eyes and crawl out again. “Meaning, that now flight school is out; I’m recruiting a crew for the summer.”
“You’re not looking for intern work?”
“Not this year—I’m following my own path.”
“What about a ship?” he asks.
I am prepared. “This morning, I used the remains of my mother’s estate, my inheritance, to purchase a gorgeous airship.”
Fernando knows all about inheritances.
He doesn’t look very impressed, so I try again, “I’m offering you a job on a secret mission.”
Scud nods once. “I’m in.”
“How can you, ‘be in’?” Fernando demands. “You don’t even know what the job is yet.” He glares at Scud, who stares out the window again.
Molding these two into a team could be a challenge. Maybe a bigger threat than either of them would do the trick; perhaps I should make them both hate me, though I don’t believe Scud would ever hate me, even if I gave him good reason.
Scud shrugs his shoulders. “It’s Nina—how can I not be in?” He is so pathetically cute sometimes.
“You’re going to retrace your mother’s last expedition and find out how she died,” Fernando states.
“You’ve told everyone, Nina. It’s no secret.”
“Oh.” I fix my lilac eyes on him. “Well I need your navigation skills.”
“Standard Guild rates.” We all belong to the Aviator’s Guild, as officer apprentices. Soon, when we pass our exams, we will gain promotion to officer grade on commercial airships. At twenty-one, though, we already qualify to pilot our own private craft, which is exactly what I intend to do.
“Why bring a klutz like him along?” Fernando hisses, as if Scud can’t hear him.
How do I explain a lifetime of friendship and mutual support? When my mother left, I became a pariah at school: all my friends’ parents stopped encouraging their children to pal up with the ex-mayor’s daughter. Those I thought were friends disappeared, like a breath of wind, leaving me alone and isolated. At six, I learned to be wary of those who love you for what you have rather than for yourself—a suspicion I retain, aggressively, to this day.
As a loner, I gravitated naturally towards the other loner in my year: Scud. The awkward, rude Scud. The genius Scud. The Scud whose personality skills are virtually non-existent. Scud, who is incapable of loving someone for what they do, or what their parents do, or for their connections. Even as a child, it took me a long time to accept Scud on his own terms. I needed to learn to love him for himself.
Scud sailed through the entrance exam for flight school, but it was me who coached him for weeks to get him through his Guild interview. “If you can’t look the interviewer in the eye, Scud, look at their nose, or forehead, or at the wall behind their head––it is close enough.”
Scud will never make it as a captain or any other sort of leader, but as a ship’s master he will know every intimate detail of any ship he ever steps on board, right down to the number of rivets. Especially the number of rivets.
When he’s agitated, which is often, Scud counts. He counts rivets preferably, but anything will do. I bet he’s counting something now as he stares out the window trying to avoid intimacy with Fernando.
“Because I need him.” It’s the best I can conjure up.
“This airship, it’s not the wreck moored on the north pier is it?” For all his charm, Fernando can be cruel, which is another reason I have never hooked up with him.
It is my very first airship. It might be old and it might need some reconstruction, but it is glorious. “It might require a few running repairs,” I admit.
Fernando laughs, raucously. “OK then, I got nothing else to do this summer. I’m in.”
I suspect the large—living Fernando desperately needs the money and a summer away from his creditors and many girlfriends—just as I hoped. Step three of my plan has fallen neatly into place.
A waitress slides into the spare seat opposite me. I wait for the boys to react.
Fernando, frowns and glares daggers at the slim girl with the blond bob, who has just seated herself at our table. She looks nothing like me, though we are related.
“What do you want?” Fernando demands.
The girl glares right back, unfazed by Fernando’s rudeness. She has keen hard eyes: green.
I smile at Fernando’s unease. “This is my cousin, Izzy. She’s crewing for us.” Izzy’s mother, Auntie Jean, would have brought me up, but unfortunately, my Uncle Felix, my mother’s brother, failed to officially marry her. Besides, the city authorities wanted to get their hands on my mother’s fortune, so they consigned me to the orphanage as fast as they could. As for Uncle Felix, he runs a trading post outside the city limits and is pretty elusive himself. I have never forgiven him for not coming to rescue me from the orphanage, but Izzy has many more reasons not to forgive him.
Scud looks past Izzy, but smiles. He has met her many times before. “Hi, Iz.”
Fernando bites his lip and concentrates on the steaming mug of coffee in front of him, unconsciously imitating Scud when he’s agitated. “We’ve met,” he mutters.
Oh no, Izzy isn’t one of his conquests is she? Just like Fernando to hook up with a waitress then dump her when he tires of her. Anyone he considers below his social class, which is most people, he treats with contempt when it comes to matters of the heart.
“Why thank you, Ferny,” Izzy says with mock sincerity, confirming my worst fears. “It’s great to have you along for the ride.” Fernando’s head snaps round. No one calls him Ferny—except his girlfriends. But Izzy’s attention has already shifted to me.
She nods towards Fernando. “Where’d you pick this one up, Nina?”
“Same place you did by the sounds of it,” I quip. Izzy knows how to handle herself. Maybe she dumped him. Whatever happened, she is now back to haunt poor Ferny. I have the sudden feeling these three could be more difficult to manage than I ever imagined.
Izzy is from the slums of the underdeck, that other city hanging precariously beneath the pleasant streets of New Frisco. Most suburban dwellers avoid the Underdeck at all costs, but not me. Izzy and I hit it off from an early age, and every spare minute I could escape from the orphanage I spent roaming its narrow ramshackle streets with her. The underdeck is a vibrant, noisy, colorful place, full of life, excitement, and energy. I am as at home in the chaos of the underdeck as I am in the rarefied boulevards of the suburbs.
I change the subject quickly. “If my mother were here–”
“Which she ain’t,” Izzy murmurs. She always does that.
“—she would toast this endeavor. So let’s raise our glasses to a successful trip.” We all raise our steaming mugs. “May the winds be kind,” we say, quoting the old Guild toast.
Scud leans forward and stares over my head, a sudden eagerness lighting up his face. “Tell us about your Mother, Nina.”
“There’s not much to tell that you don’t already know. She was an archaeologist. She was well connected and became Mayor of New Frisco for a few years then resigned without warning. Then she disappeared.” I wrack my brains for new information that may help them understand my desire to retrace her last steps. “She was this kind of free spirit—never satisfied in one place for long. As if she were still searching for her purpose in life.” Though she always knew exactly what she wanted and how to get it, I could have added.
“I remember watching her sail off on that last trip. She never hugged me, kissed me or even looked back. It was like I had already ceased to exist in her life. I was six.” I spot the rotund cafe owner behind the bar. “Bernard, you were here in my Mother’s day, what was she like?” The door tinkles as another customer enters.
“Your Mother, Nina?” Bernard polishes a mug while he thinks. He’s a believer, but he still chooses his words carefully. “Your mother was smart and beautiful—like you, Nina.” He grins—he fancies himself as some sort of Romeo. “When your Mother said to do something, we did it without question. She was a great leader—everything ran on time when your Mother was Mayor.” He polishes the mug some more, staring into the distance for the right words. “Beautiful and terrifying, that was your Mother, Nina. Beautiful and terrifying.”
“She was a tyrant. The city’s better off without her,” a voice calls from the doorway.
We all spin round to observe the new entrant. Jack McGraw, police constable and son of the current Mayor of New Frisco, and with him Lieutenant Borker of the Police Guild, who’s turned up nose always reminds me of a snout.
It is Borker who is speaking. “Some of us remember Eve Swift differently. No one liked her. Everyone was afraid of her. We’re well shot of her. And as for your Father–”
I jump to my feet. “You leave my Father out of it.” I’m ready to defend my father’s honor.
“I don’t need to,” Borker drawls. “He seems to have left himself out of everything since the day you were born.”
I feel my face reddening up at the thought of my wayward Father taking to his heels at my birth and never returning. Abandoned by both parents—so humiliating.
The others are on their feet now too—I feel like we’re a crew already.
“This is a private conversation,” Fernando snaps, “Go back to your guild and mind your own business. No one likes you either.”
I feel immediately grateful to Fernando for taking my side and saving me from further embarrassment. He always has just the right phrase for any occasion, bless him.
Jack McGraw pushes in front of Borker. He’s ok— dark, wiry, intense; handsome in the gleaming buttons of his navy-blue uniform. “Actually, Lieutenant Borker and I are here on official business.”
Borker’s eyes had fixed on me the moment he entered the cafe and haven’t shifted. I feel uncomfortable, like a trapped animal. A shiver runs down my spine— Borker is creepy. He’s also dangerous, I don’t know this for sure, it’s just an instinct I have about him: very dangerous. Slowly, we all settle into our seats under his withering gaze. He has that effect on people.
McGraw straightens his official peaked cap. “We are looking for the owner of a decrepit pile of junk masquerading as an unlicensed airship called the Shonti Bloom.” McGraw raises his eyebrows insinuatingly.
Borker looks as if he’s sniffing out the ship’s owner, like a boar searching for rotten apples.
I glance guiltily at my crew, but I’m not about to admit anything, certainly not something that will prevent me searching for my mother. “Are you suggesting,” I bridle, “that I’m the sort of person who would attempt to pilot an unlicensed airship?”
“You are a slippery, untrustworthy, trickster,” McGraw declares to the whole café.
Inwardly I smile, pleased with McGraw’s description –– except for the untrustworthy tag, of course. Outwardly, I concentrate on frowning.
“You are your Mother’s daughter,” Borker growls, “anything is possible.” More complements. His strangled voice reinforces his boorish image. I can just imagine him rooting through fallen leaves searching out his next victim.
“Her cast-off daughter,” Borker adds.
Now I frown for real—how dare he.
McGraw comes between us again. “Don’t worry, Borker, she won’t get far with this crew.” He indicates my comrades at the table. Borker doesn’t look in the least bit worried.
“You’re a trouble maker, Swift,” McGraw continues, “and I have special orders to keep an eye on you.” He winks, opens the door to leave, then turns back. “By the way, I have impounded the Shonti Bloom, under guard, just in case someone takes it into her head to claim it.”
Borker’s piercing eyes remain fixed on me as the pair make their exit.
Fernando’s chair scrapes back as he stands. “So that’s the end of that then.”
My chair crashes to the ground as I jump up. Izzy grimaces at the eruption of sound and Scud cowers. Anger seethes inside me. “Like heck it is. We’ll just have to steal her back from McGraw.”
“This is stealing, Nina,” Scud hisses, as we crouch in the dark, “stealing is wrong.”
“Since I already own this airship,” I hiss back, “we’re technically liberating it.” We are hiding behind a barrier of crates waiting to be loaded onto one of the huge freight liners.
The docks circle the entire floating landmass of New Frisco, magically lifted into the sky by the ancients and their weird technology. As the city expanded, other chunks of land were added, tethered together by bridges.
One day, the ancient’s who inhabited the earth, simply disappeared taking their technology with them. New Frisco continues to out grown the islands of land and now reaches out into the sky itself: a tangle of wooden platforms, supported by an ever increasing throng of hydrogen balloons, connected by swaying walkways and rope bridges.
Other platforms were attached below the first, then still further levels, the beginnings of the vast slums that turned New Frisco into a multi-layered metropolis, but everything is fringed by the docks—the life-blood of the city.
I never like the docks at night, the whole place creaks and groans as the wooden decks shift and creek in the air currents. Somehow, I never notice either the sound or the movement during the day. At night there are no crowds rushing about their business, no airships drifting in and out, and no clatter of cargo liners loading and unloading. Maybe all that human activity creates the true nature of the docks I love. At night, the docks, dark and silent, are a ghost of their daytime selves.
I cushion myself against my shoulder bag and hear the scrunch of stiff paper. I remember the package, still unopened—later, I promise myself.
Scud quietly lowers more flight bags beside me. “I can’t believe you didn’t get a license for the Shonti Bloom. That’s wrong too.”
“If I’d applied for a license I wouldn’t have got one, would I. It just needs a little bit of work, that’s all.”
“It’s called an air—worthiness license for a reason, Nina.” Scud loves his rules and regulations—it’s not one of his more lovable traits. “You need to pay more attention to the details, Nina.”
“It’s just a piece of paper. Once we clear New Frisco’s airspace it has no meaning. You need to look at the bigger picture, Scud.” Even as I say it, I know I’m being cruel: Scud is not capable of seeing the bigger picture; it’s one of the limits in his life, but also his greatest strength.
Scud starts to shift about, uneasily—I’ve upset him. Now he needs to concentrate on counting details to regain his equilibrium.
But I’m wrong—he’s actually building up the courage to tick me off.
“No Nina, you pay me to do detail. If you could do detail you wouldn’t need me. I’m good at detail.” He is so right. “We make a good team.”
Now I wish I could take back my earlier remarks. “We’re a great team, Scud.”
He thinks about it for a while. “Yeah, right. Apology accepted.” He lapses into silence and settles down to wait while I cut through the netting surrounding the dock where the Shonti Bloom is moored.
I’ve sent Fernando and Izzy out scouting the perimeter fence. They return.
“Two guards round the north side,” Fernando reports.
Izzy sneaks in beside him. “And another two on the south.”
So with the two in front of us that makes at least six police constables guarding my little airship. A little excessive to just guard an airship, but of course, this is a trap.
I bet McGraw has a few constables hiding in the shadows too and maybe a couple on the Shonti Bloom herself. That’s what I would do.
Fernando pushes in beside me. “We need a distraction.”
I hold up the shielded lantern I’m carrying and lift one of the shutters just enough to let out a peek of flame.
“I’m way ahead of you buddy, way ahead.”
“No!” Izzy and Scud looked horrified. Fernando grins—he’s quicker off the mark. There is one thing everyone in the city fears: fire.
On a wooden structure fire can engulf everything in an instance, so any reaction to fire is fast and decisive. There are public fire extinguishers everywhere in New Frisco and the penalty for not using the closest one to you in an emergency is severe. It is rumored that some cities even make such miscreants walk the plank.
When I was very little, I once saw a fire get out of control on a residential deck, crackling and roaring as the wind fanned it toward the main city. The Mayor callously ordered the entire deck cut loose. When the whole structure plunged to earth like a blazing fireball, you could hear the screams of those still trapped in their homes—sacrificed for the good of the city.
That Mayor was my Mother.
“Not for real,” I assure my jittery crew, “it just needs to look real.”
We haul our flight bags and supplies through the fence. Then I instruct my crew to get ready to run, because the distraction won’t last long. “Anything you can’t carry, leave behind.” I slip off to plant my decoy.
I find a hut with a window facing the dock. Close enough to the Shonti Bloom for the constables to think it their duty to deal with the fire, but far enough away to give us enough time to free the airship. I remove the closest fire extinguishers from around the hunt, then force the lock open, and set my lamp inside just below the window, unshielded. I am half—way back to the dock and still no one has spotted the flame flickering in the hut window. So I gave them a helping hand. “Fire. Help! Help! Fire.”
Police constables sure are disciplined—a credit to their guild. They react instantly, streaming out the gate towards my decoy fire, but remembering to leave one of their number still on guard. As I suspected, two constables charge out of the Shonti Bloom and a couple of others emerge from the shadows. McGraw isn’t stupid. To be fair, he is both handsome and intelligent, but today he is my adversary.
I slip through the cut netting, pick up my shoulder bag and a kit of supplies that weight a ton, and stagger towards the Shonti Bloom. I hope by crew are already boarding. Behind me I can hear a confusion of shouting as the constables search for extinguishers. We have a few more minutes. I love it when a plan comes together.
Suddenly, a shape leaps up before me from the gloom. It’s McGraw.
“Think I’m stupid, do you, Swift? I knew you’d try and steal that wreck—it’s a death trap.”
I don’t stop to argue, or think, I just swing the bag of supplies as hard as I can. I feel it connect with a satisfying thud and McGraw’s silhouette disappears. As determined as I am to retake my airship, I hope I haven’t hurt him too much—he’s just doing his duty, I don’t hate him or anything.
I run on.
I can just make out shadows milling around the airship—my crew unfastening the mooring ropes—but only because I expect to see them there. I run up the gang—plank and dump my bags on the deck, elation fills my gut, and I punched the air. “Yes.” The Shonti Bloom is mine again.
I grab the ship’s wheel as my crew slips quietly onboard and retracts the gang plank.
“We’ll just let her float out on the breeze,” I instruct. My first order as captain of my own airship—it feels good.
“Scud, get us some power. Fernando, find me some clouds we can use to cover a course change,” I order.
Scud heads for the engine room disappearing down a ladder into the hull and Fernando slips into the glass fronted map room immediately behind the ship’s wheel, leaving Izzy and I alone on the open deck.
“We done it Nina, we got our own airship.” Izzy looks almost a pleased as I feel. We grin at each other like naughty school children.
I feel a formal word or two might be appropriate. “If my mother were here –’ Crash. The ship slews to starboard and smashes against the end of the dock, knocking me to the floor. A mooring line is snared. Then the back end of the ship crashes against the other side of the dock.
“Izzy, hold the wheel straight.” I scramble up, and without really thinking, climb over the handrail and leap across the void to the dock. I draw my knife. Curiously, the snared line looks as if someone has knotted it to a rail. Uh-oh.
A weight hits me square in the middle of the back and I sprawl on the deck.
“Didn’t think you would get away that easily, did you, Swift?” Jack McGraw again. Where did he spring from? “You will have to work harder than that to escape me. Over this way guys.”
The other constables are returning; I have precious little time. I squirm from underneath the weight of the McGraw’s body and lash out with my booted feet. One of them connects with something that crunches.
“Ow. Oww. She’ds dying to dill me.”
I can dimly see something dark spreading over his face. That should convince everyone I mean business.
I loop the snared line round my left forearm and slice down with the knife. The line parts far too easily and I’m jerked off my feet. Note to self, replace rotten ropes. I scrabble to regain my footing, but the airship is gaining too much speed and I’m dragged across the decking, still scrabbling to regain my balance.
Jack McGraw is up and chasing after me again. “Let go of the rope, Nina, it’s not worth dying for.”
I ignore him and concentrate on getting back on the ship. My ship. Which I’m not losing for anyone. Strange how we always fight harder to retain something than to gain it in the first place. Two days ago I was a penniless, but content, flight student, now I’m risking my life to regain an airship, which until today I have quite happily live without.
The edge of the deck rushes towards me and I realize I’m going over. The sensible thing would be to let go right now, but I’m caught up in emotions I cannot control. Instead, I drop the knife and grab hold of the old rope with both hands, praying it still has enough integrity to support me.
Jack McGraw follows me, bellowing, right to the edge of the deck. “Nina!”
Somewhere above my head the bio engines cough into life, followed by a flash and the grinding screech of metal on metal. Good idea to start the engines now that the element of surprise has gone, but that noise is worrying.
I start to climb. It’s much harder to climb a swaying rope than it sounds, but I have done it before. In flight academy it is a standard maintenance drill. However, when the rope is hanging off a moving object and you’re miles above the earth, it is nothing like a drill.
I can’t let myself think like that now. I need to put myself back into the gym, back into that drill, focus on instructor Beneley’s voice as the other recruits rock the equipment. “Climb slow, climb steady. Concentrate on your hand grips and your feet. Your crew mate’s lives depend on you. Leave no room for error. Make one move at a time. Think only of your hands and your feet until you run out of rope. Slow and steady saves the day.”
Suddenly, I become aware of a different movement in the rope. Shards, it’s fraying; somewhere above me the rope is splitting. Either it’s worn through or it snagged on something sharp while exiting the dock. During my next couple of moves, I concentrate on the weakness of the rope. It’s not much, but it’s there. I need to climb faster, but smoother and steadier—the more I wrench the rope about, the quicker it will tear.
A searchlight flashes out from the dock lighting up the Shonti Bloom. “Return to dock, you are flying an illegal craft. The ship is not airworthy. You are endangering yourself and your crew. Return to dock.” As if I’ll fall for that one. I just hope my new crew doesn’t take it into their heads to turn back. Nah, they wouldn’t do that. They trust me, don’t they?
In the glint of the search light I spot the frayed rope above me, about six feet up. Even as I climb, I can see individual fibers parting. “Slow and steady saves the day.” I take a deep breath and push on, concentrating on the rope in my hands.
Eventually, my hands clasp the rope directly below the tear. I pause, feeling the fibers parting faster and faster. If I don’t move now I’m dead. I bring my legs up as high as I can, then reach as far up the rope as I possible for the next hand hold.
With a crack, like a pistol shot, the rope parts under my weight and the vigor of my lunge.
A nano-second late, my hands close round the rope above my head. The rope starts to slip through my grip and I kick widely until my boots close round the cord again. I stop sliding. I’m safe—if you can call dandling on the end of a rope a mile above the earth safe. Thank goodness I ditched my worn, shiny boots and bought new ones that grip the rope with a lot more friction.
Never stint on the quality of basic equipment—you never know when it might just save your life.
The person with the searchlight has belatedly realized there’s action dangling below the Shonti Bloom and lights me up so my crew can realize where I am.
Fernando hangs over the side of the hull and snags the trailing mooring rope with another line. “Nina, climb up the rope.”
What does he think I’ve been going for the last five minutes? I’m exhausted and my arm muscles are screaming for me to just let go and give them some rest. I wonder what the long dark fall into oblivion would feel like.
Instead, I make a loop in the rope and stand in it, unmoving, until my crew haul me to safety. As eager hands reach out to haul me over the rail, I’m greeted by an explosion from the back of the ship.
“That,” Izzy says, “is the sound of the port bio-engine exploding. The solar batteries are empty too. Is this what you call air-worthy, Nina?”’
“Yeah,” Scud agrees, “this ship is a mess. But I kind of like her.”
I’m so relieved to be alive I just lie on the deck, staring up at the dark mass of the blimp and laughing at them. “Then we’ll limp along on one engine until dawn, guys.” I really can’t see what the fuss is about. “Head west. I’m sure Jack McGraw won’t be after us that fast.”
In late spring, my Father, the Mayor of New Frisco, called me into his office. A strict and curt man, I suspect I will always fail to meet his high expectations of me, but really I no longer care.
“Constable McGraw, I have a special mission for you this summer, make sure you don’t let me down.” He is incapable of awarding an honor or offering a compliment without digging in the knife. “You are to keep a special eye on that young troublemaker Nina Swift. Far too much interest is being shown in her activities by nefarious interests.”
I wonder which of her activities had drawn the ire of his associates, to my Father all interests but his own are nefarious. He did not deign to enlighten me. After all, I am no one special, just his son.
“Lieutenant Borker has volunteered for the assignment,” my father continues. Lieutenant Borker is an obnoxious git, who I hate. “I cannot refuse him, but I do not trust him either, so I am putting you in charge of the operation. She is a citizen of New Frisco with an honorable family history, do whatever it takes to protect her honor.”
I doubt he would approve of the way I have protected her honor so far.
Now, after the affair at the docks I am back again. “You let her go!” Father bellows across the chamber. I have never seen him so angry.
We are standing in the Mayor’s library, an audience chamber whose walls are lined, from floor to ceiling, with shelves of ancient leather bound books. Father paces back and forth in front of a large picture window which looks out over the administrative district of New Frisco with its garden squares and impressive stone clad buildings. I am separated from him by a large mahogany desk. He has not invited Lieutenant Borker or I to sit.
I clear my throat to report. “She escaped. She was very determined.” I could have added that she punched me, but he won’t be impressed. Borker stands behind me to my left, silently letting me take all the heat. I know the buck stops with me, the guy in charge, but he could at least provide a word of support instead of letting me stew. One of the joys of leadership I suppose.
“If you give me a crew I can go after her,” I add, which is the real purpose of my visit.
Father stops pacing and turns his eagle glare on me. “Where would you look for her?”
I know exactly where she will go, but I’m not telling Father or Borker how I know. “Her Uncle has a trading station South West of here, she will go there.”
“Hmm.” Father turns back to the window as a fluky in a pretentious top hat hurries past on some private mission. Father strokes his chin, slowly, as he thinks. I stand rigidly at attention, waiting. I have absolutely no idea what goes on inside that muddy mind of his.
Finally, Father makes his decision. “You must take an airship and go after her.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Borker steps forward. “May I suggest, Sir—”
“No you may not, Borker. Jack is in charge because I want her back alive, understand? No accidents.”
“—an arrest warrant, for the young gentleman. In case he needs to claim jurisdiction in some foreign sovereign state.”
“Oh, er, yes. Good idea Borker. I will draw them up presently.”
I smile inwardly—it’s not often anyone wrong-foots Father, but Borker obviously has the knack. One of his many talents. I shudder at the rumors of his other talents.
“And a Letter of Mark, sir. In case the young gentleman needs additional help,” Borker continues without changing his tone, though this second request is much greater than the first.
I hold my breath. I would never dare ask for something so audacious from Father. A Letter of Mark would officially give me the authority to acquire anything on behalf of the City State of New Frisco: provisions, ships, people, weapons; it’s a bold move. Is Borker up to something?
Father’s brows snap together in a frown that I know from past experience means he’s furious again. “We are not pirates, Borker.” He turns his back on us, clasping his hand in the small of his back, dismissing us.
I salute, preparing to depart, but Borker remains stiffly at attention.
“Of course not, sir.”
He has some brass, I’ll give him that.
“But the gentleman is very young and any constable he asks for help, whether our own or foreign, will most certainly out rank him, acquiring immediate control of the operation. A Letter of Mark will ensure his command, in any situation, without ambiguity. Unless, of course, you are prepared to trust this girl’s safety to any old stranger, sir.”
Since when has Borker cared about Nina’s safety? He is, without a doubt, the slyest person I have ever met.
Wrong-footed again, Father turns back to us. He looks at me, looks at Borker, and sinks slowly into a chair behind his desk. He steeples his hands in front of him, sinks his forehead until it rests on his fingers, and appears to meditate. He’s not praying, he’s thinking, long and deep, like a chess player—a game at which he excels. We wait.
Through the window I see the top hat hurry by in the opposite direction, mission completed.
Father stays like this, silent and unmoving, for a full minute. Contrary to his appearance, he is now at his most dangerous. Even Borker holds his peace. Eventually, father breaks the silence. “Do you know something I don’t, Borker?”
“What could I possibly know that you don’t, sir?”
Father’s head snaps up, his eagle eyes bore into Borker’s. “I asked you a direct question, Lieutenant. I expect a direct answer.”
I’m sure Borker pales slightly, but he stays steely calm. “Nothing more than you already know, sir. I just think we should prepare in case direct action is required.”
Obviously, they have discussed Nina without me and shared additional information.
In reality then, I am only in charge up to the point where they have agreed Borker should take over or in circumstances they think I cannot handle. I wonder how much I will be able to prove my worth before I am reined back. More importantly, is the Letter of Mark for me or Borker.
What do they know about Nina Swift that I don’t? On the other hand, I have plenty of knowledge about her they don’t, so I suppose we’re even.
“You could have told me where we were going,” Izzy grumbles.
I could have and I should have, but everything was too frantic last night. And since then I’ve been too busy, I lie to myself. Besides, where did she think we were going to pick up supplies? If I’d told her before we left she might not have crewed for me at all.
I peer through a telescope at the trading platform on the horizon, which we are fast approaching. Unlike New Frisco, the fragile wooden structure of decks and suspended boardwalks rely entirely on hydrogen balloons to maintain altitude. A large warehouse dominates the single deck, the “Shop,” surrounded by a mass of docks for visiting airships.
“I’m not sure there’s anyone home,” Izzy says, “looks deserted.”
The Shonti Bloom limped along all night on one spluttering bio-engine, then at dawn we dived into a bank of cumulus cloud. No sign of pursuit, but I know Jack McGraw won’t give up that easy—he has a Father to impress. Inside the cloud cover we changed direction and headed west––a course that took us out over the open sea and ended at Uncle Felix’s trading station.
Just like me, mother would have stopped for supplies as she headed off on her last trip. If anyone knew where she was headed, it’s Uncle Felix.
As the first rays of dawn strike the photo-voltaic fabric of the blimp, the battery cells swell with energy and Scud activates the tail. I sigh with relief as the Shonti Bloom picks up speed—at least there’s nothing wrong with her main propulsion.
Electronic synapses, built into the rear third of the blimp’s semi-rigid skeleton, snap up and down with alternating electric currents. This causes the large tail flukes to churn the air powering us forward with great sweeps: maximum thrust, minimum energy.
I cut the sick bio-engine. With more momentum, I can now engage the forward fins to improve the steering.
Free at last of the clanking engine and sluggish rudder, the Shonti Bloom soars through the air like a porpoise skimming the clouds. My heart soars too—this is what flying is all about: the rush of adrenalin as you ride the breeze, the sheer joy of surfing the eddies, and the flow of the currents. Everyone thinks I joined the Pilot’s Guild to follow in my Mother’s footsteps, but the real reason is the joy I’m now experiencing. One trip in my Mother’s airship, as a young girl, and I was smitten. I just love the sensation of flying—it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
Fernando tries to snatch the telescope from Izzy. She ducks out of reach of his grasping hands. “Mine. I got here first.”
When I visited the trading station as a kid, before mother left, I remember it constantly bustling with activity—a stream of noise and color; traders, post packets, and leisure yachts docking, and departing all the time. I know Reavers have killed off much of the leisure traffic since then and our skies are generally quieter (most traders travel in convoys as protection against Reaver raiding parties), but surely things can’t have changed that much.
This inactivity worries me. Something is definitely wrong. I train my telescope on the floating rig. A stab of fear chills my heart, a ragged black flag flutters from one of the supporting cables: Plague.
“We’re still going in,” I say, determined to find out what I can from Uncle Felix about my mother’s last trip—even if he is at death’s door. How dangerous can it be?
“Not until we’ve voted,” Fernando declares, “No Captain can make a decision like that, Nina. Not without the crew’s consent. Guild rules, remember.”
I was hoping no one would remember, but he’s right.
Scud searches me out from his seat in front of the wheel. “Guild rules must be obeyed, Nina. We don’t even know whether your uncle is alive.”
I have lost the argument before I’ve even begun, so I might as well be gracious. I don’t want a mutiny on my very first day as captain.
Fernando is right—Guild rules clearly state all ships must avoid a plague flag, unless three quarters of the crew agree to take the risk, by vote. It is one of the few occasions when the Captain loses their authority. Then that ship must fly a plague flag themselves until quarantined and given a clean bill of health.
Fernando puts the motion before I can even phrase it in my own mind.
“Raise your hand if you are prepared to take the risk of plague,” he declares.
What really annoys me is that last time I checked I was the Captain. Who commands this crew? I guess I have some competition,
Fernando lifts his eyebrows in surprise when Izzy reluctantly raises her hand along with me and Scud. He was counting on Izzy supporting his rebellion, but I know better—I know her secret. She might have been reluctant to come this way, but now I’ve forced her here, there is no way she’s going to leave without knowing what is happening on that trading platform.
Fernando has misjudged and I take full advantage of his confusion to reassert my command. “That’s a clear majority then. Do you want us to drop you off somewhere first, Fernando, or are you coming in with us?”
“If you are going, I might as well come with you,” he mumbles.
I release my breath and hear Izzy doing the same from across the deck. “Great, well you steer us in, Fernando, and I’ll go record the vote.” I escape to my cabin.
Later, sitting on the bunk holding my shaking hands, I am unable to write in the open ship’s journal. In flight school they teach that authority is something you either have naturally, as part of your personality, or something you acquire through experience in a process called character building. I take deep breaths in an attempt to still my shaking hands; I guess this is the character building part.
After a while, I force myself to concentrate on writing neatly in the log, then sit back to admire my work—a bit shaky, but not bad. I take a few more deep breaths before returning to the deck to supervise the Shonti Bloom as she bumps her way into one of the silent docks. My crew, business-like once more, though at least one is storing up a grudge for later, leap to the deck and secure the mooring ropes.
The platform is deserted, except for the creaking of boards and the crackling of the shredded plague flag in the wind—it must have been there a while. I wonder if we are too late and everyone has either left or died.
I heft my trusty Whisper just in case.
Fernando’s eye’s almost pop out of his head when I produce the weapon from my cabin. He glances down at the bog-standard crossbow he’s drawn from the armory. “Hell’s teeth, Nina, that’s a top-of-the-range assassin’s weapon. Where’d you get that?”
The others, of course already know about the Whipser. Izzy even has the grace to still look a bit guilty when she sees it, and so she should. “It was given to me—but that’s another story.”
The Whisper, self-loading crossbow, is my absolutely favorite weapon. You can tell when something is well made simply because it feels good to use. It’s an awesome piece of engineering: light, accurate, powerful enough to drive a bolt straight through a man, and the compression air canister reloads the tension wire with barely a sigh, then slips in a new bolt from the magazine with a satisfying, but barely audible, click.
I have two tiny pistol versions to complete the set, but those bolts are so small they have to be tipped with knockout drugs to have any real effect; their range is short and the air canisters always need topping up. On a mission like this, which could turn out to be a Reaver trap, maximum fire power is required.
Nothing stirs except us. The silence is oppressive. None of us talk as we thread our way towards the shop, through piles of parts, seemingly scatted at random. A neat mound of rope reminds me of my precarious ride the previous night. At the very least, I need to replace the mooring ropes while I’m here. Some green tarp snapping in the breeze draws my attention to a couple of Evinrude bio-engines peeking out from under the canvas. I make a mental note to ask Uncle Felix if I can swap them for the sick engines on the Shonti Bloom. He’ll say no, but he might offer me some spare parts instead.
When in need, always ask—you never know where such conversations will go unless you try.
At first, when we enter the cavernous warehouse, I think the place has been looted. Stock, which I remember from childhood being stacked to the ceiling in neat piles, is scattered everywhere. We pick our way to the main desk, the heart of Uncle Felix’s operation, careful to keep every corner covered by our crossbows.
Here paper invoices cover the floor; business ledgers are strewn across the long counter-top, many of them open; my Uncle’s prized books have been raked out of their bookshelves into a heap on the floor; every tin, box, and draw from the ceiling high cupboard behind the counter, that had always so impressed me as a child, has been opened––now the stack gapes like a jaw full of missing teeth.
Not looting—something else has happened here: the place has been turned over. Someone has searched thoroughly for something, but not Uncle Felix who could instantly locate anything in this labyrinth. Then I spot something even more alarming.
Among the scattered stock and papers on the floor, a trail of blood leads deeper into the gloom of the shop. My heart starts thumping hard in my chest. I fear the worst as I follow the trail.
At the foot of a narrow staircase, hemmed in by his precious bookshelves, I find Uncle Felix. Dead.
The smell is dreadful.
Like dummies, we stand and stare at the corpse not knowing what to do. I remember the man I once knew, rough but fair, gruff but reassuring. I feel a pang of loss, but is it for Uncle Felix or for the happy childhood I once shared with my Mother in which this man was featured. After my mother’s death, I hardly ever saw the guy. I look across at Izzy. She is stony faced—at least I had known the guy at little.
Scud is hiding behind Fernando, death makes him anxious. I’ve seen my fair share of corpses, who hasn’t, and it still makes me feel anxious, but when Scud is anxious he wants to hide from the whole world.
I wave him forward. “Do you think he died of plague?” Scud pulls a face then crouches down to examine the corpse and places his weapon on the floor. He is only looking because I asked him. I am certain Scud would never do something like this for anyone else. I can see his lips moving as he silently counts square numbers in his head, to divert himself from thinking directly about the dead person in front of him.
Scud carefully examines Uncle Felix’s head, ears, and neck, then the rest of his body. Finally he stands and turns his back on the corpse and takes a deep breath. “He was stabbed in the abdomen.”
I remember the frequent fights at the trading station, for which, much to my annoyance, my Mother would bustle me into a back room out of sight. Felix loved a good scrap and often, after he dived in to break it up, he would be the only one left standing. “No one with a knife could have gotten within an arms-length of him.”
“Must have been someone he knew well then,” Fernando says looking very pale, and I realize I have spoken my thought out loud. I’m concerned Fernando might heave, but he does have a point.
Scud is poking round in the wreck of the shop. “He wouldn’t die straight away from a wound like that. He would slowly bleed to death. That’s why there’s so much blood.”
I glance across at Izzy. She is still staring at the corpse, unmoved.
I take Scud to one side. “Please don’t make this any worse than it is, I think Izzy is in shock.”
“I know, but look, I’m right.” He strides across the floor, stepping across fallen objects. “He was stabbed right over here.”
I kick myself for trying to quieten Scud by appealing to his emotions: Scud doesn’t do empathy.
He waves at a table still containing two mugs, too engrossed now in his theory to listen to me or anyone else. “Then he crawled to the main desk, where he must have spent some time, because there’s loads of dried blood here, and pulled the knife out, because that’s still here too. Finally, he crawled to the foot of the stairs where his strength gave out and he died.”
“So why is there blood up these stairs then,” Fernando asks, happy as always to prove Scud wrong, which is a rare event. He is right; there is blood on several higher steps. Uncle Felix must have climbed the stairs. “Look at the way he’s laying. He must have fallen down the steps.”
I am grateful to concentrate on something other than the corpse. Before anyone else can move, I cross to the steps and climb up. I push my Whisper through the opening first.
Something flaps by my head and I quickly duck. Bats? I hate bats. Just the thought they might get tangled in my hair is enough to send cold shivers cascading down my spine. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the gloom of the loft, then chance another look.
This time nothing attacks me. Layer upon layer of small cages filled the small loft. Pigeons. Each cage contains a single bird, neatly labelled with its destination. I recognize the names as mail hubs. Only one cage is empty: Westward Passage.
I descend the stairs to inform the others of my discovery. “Looks like Felix got off a last message to Westward Passage.”
Izzy looks up from the corpse at last. “Who to?”
“Who would you write a last message to?”
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