Darker Skies – Chapter 4

With the mail packet stopping at a number of different trading stations and free floating colonies, it takes us five days to reach Port Benson.

When Jack and I finally exit the captain’s cabin, early on a fine sunny morning, it is to find the ship deserted. They sure are efficient about keeping our identities secret.

I thought we might be winched ashore the same way we boarded:  in mail bags. Instead, we are allowed to walk freely down the gangplank onto the solid ground of the floating island.

Port Benson is a mid-altitude settlement: intermediate between the high altitude city states and the low altitude Reaver realms. When the Gaia Foundation saved planet earth, by re-engineered human DNA so humans could only live at high altitude, before committing genocide by wiping out ground based humans for ever, they inadvertently produced low altitude versions as well. Uncomfortable at high altitude, but not at home on the surface either, Reaver culture has developed over hundreds of years at these lower altitudes.

This island is a meeting point between these high and low altitude cultures. It is also at these intermediate altitudes that Reaver pirates, like the famed Anabella Steenkamph, ply their trade. Stealing up to snatch unsuspecting merchant shipping before dragging their victims down to the Reaver depths.

The docks are crammed with the ships of Reaver traders and City State merchants. There is even the odd pure white Microtough ship nestled in among the bobbing blimps.

We have docked alongside a pontoon attached to the main structure of the settlement. It is these pontoons, projecting out all around the main island, that gives Port Benson, when approached from above or below, its distinctive pin-wheel shape.

From the deck of the mail packet, a mass of airships curve away in either direction and I get my first look at Reaver sailing ships. At lower altitudes the wind blows significantly stronger, and the skies are more often overcast, so most Reaver ships rely on sail power and mechanical devices to drive their airships rather than solar energy.

In addition to the large propellers, used mainly for steering, which are power by humans running in giant hamster wheels, Reaver airships have masts. These are folded neatly alongside the hulls of the Reaver ships, waiting to be hoisted out and rigged with canvas sails. This is a different kind of airship, one with which I told Stan Walligham I have experience. I lied.

Among the cosmopolitan hordes swarming in the sunshine past the tall narrow warehouses that line Port Benson’s docks, my Reaver garb fits right in, so too would my New Frisco guild uniform. In this sort of throng, anyone can go unnoticed.

Barely has Magnus started escorting us towards the dock where the next ship on our journey awaits us, than I am hailed by someone from the crowd.

“Nina, Nina, wait up Nina.”

I try to ignore the voice calling me, but I know that voice and realize it is useless. Scud will never give up, and the more I ignore him, the harder he will try.

Magnus tries to hurry us along, while constantly glancing around, trying to detect the source of the caller.

“Nina, wait up.”

Abruptly, Magnus stops and whirls round, reaching for the pistol in his cross belt and searching the crowd for Scud. I fling my arm across his chest to prevent him drawing the gun and he looks up in alarm.

“Let me deal with this, Magnus. No need for violence.”

Magnus lowers his hand to his side, but not before I notice a thin blade appear from up his arm. I must remember that one: a spring loaded knife-holder up the sleeve—neat. Magnus might be prepared to let me handle the situation initially, but he’s still ready for violence.

Scud bursts from the crowd beaming all over his face, arms out ready to embrace me.

In private I would have returned the hug. Instead I step back and hold out my hand. “Scud, what are you doing here?”

Scud glances nervously at Jack, but not long enough to catch his eye. “Oh, er… yes.” He takes my hand and shakes it firmly.

I’m surprised to see Scud wearing the uniform of the Constables: navy blue pants, peaked cap, and greatcoat with a double row of shiny brass buttons guaranteed to meet with Scud’s approval.

“Since when have you been a constable?”

Scud frowns. “We were waiting for you, Nina. I knew something terrible had happened when you didn’t turn up at the restaurant. Then all the constables were out searching for you and calling you and Jack murderers. I looked everywhere for you.”

“So your answer was to joined the constables?”

Scud shakes his head. “The constables didn’t have enough people to hunt you and mount the big operation, so they outsourced some jobs to the flight guild.” He straightens up and flicks a spec of fluff from the sleeve of his greatcoat. “They are actually paying me to wear this uniform. Besides, I figured they might lead me to you—which they have.”

Jack steps forward to get Scud’s attention. “What big operation?”

Magnus, with his knife, is edging slowly closer to Scud. If I don’t resolve this situation soon, Magnus will take his own course of action.

Scud puffs out his chest. “We’re going to capture a Reaver pirate called Anabella Steenkamph. They’re bringing in Constables from all the city states.”

“Anabella Steenkamph?” Magnus takes a sudden interest in the conversation.

“You know her?”

“You seen her?”

Jack and Scud both speak at the same time.

Magnus looks embarrassed to be drawn into the conversation. “Maybe I’ve worked with her. Maybe even sailed with her. You’ll be lucky to capture that one though—she’s a tricky one. Intelligent and slippery.”

“It’s about time they tried to stop her,” Jack says. “Scud, you better get back so you don’t miss the operation.”

“No, I’m coming with you and Nina. We always have adventures together.”

This is the very situation I was seeking to avoid.

Magnus tenses, ready to strike. I need to intervene before he does anything stupid and draws attention to us, but Jack gets in there first.

“You can’t come with us, Scud, you have a contract with the  Constables. You need to complete the job.”

I know scud will ignore whatever Jack says. He will only listen to me. It has always been this way. Ever since we were children, scud has followed me like a puppy, and I’ve indulged him, grateful for his friendship, though often frustrated by his strangeness.

I need to be firm. “Not this time, Scud. This is something Jack and I need to do together.”

Scud looks crestfallen, as though I have just jilted him at the alter—not that he’s the marrying type of course, nor for that matter am I.

“I’ll catch up with you when I return to New Frisco. I hope you bring in this Anabella Steenkamph, she sounds like a nasty piece of work.”

Jack barks a laugh, undermining the authority of my stance. “There won’t be anything left to bring in, Nina, this is an international operation, it only ends one way.”

“But our orders are to capture her alive,” Scud protests.

Jack grins lopsidedly. “Of course they are, but when was the last time you saw a pirate brought to trial? Maybe if all the states shared the same laws that would happen. But no city state is going to risk another letting her off on a legal technicality. From the moment the Constables spring their trap, she and all her crew are doomed.”

Scud absorbs this information. “They can’t just condemn her entire crew to death. That’s not legal—it’s not fair.”

Jack laughs again. “Nothing in life is fair Scud. But that’s the way it is. They don’t want any witnesses.”

“You are on another adventure, aren’t you?” Scud shows no sign of backing off and passers-by are starting to take an interest. “You’re in disguise. I bet it has something to do with your mother, Nina.”

Magnus has edged close enough to Scud to strike with his knife.

Anger surges inside at the mention of my mother. I need to end this. I elbow Jack aside and thrust my curled lips at Scud’s face. “I don’t want no constable scum on this trip. Scuttle off back to your treacherous mates and enjoy your big operation. You’re as bad as they are, now skedaddle before a make you.” I pull aside the front of my coat and reach for the hilt of a pistol secured on a belt that crosses my corset.

Slowly, in the stunned silence, Scud turns away and I feel a pang of guilt. He is such a pathetically devoted friend it pains me to send him away, but I have no choice, it is for his own good. I watch his back disappear into the distance, he doesn’t even look back, which means he’s not just disappointed with me, but angry. I will try to make it up to him when I return to New Frisco, if I return, but I may have just lost my most endearing friend.

Magnus relaxes and the knife disappears up his leave again—I really must get myself one of those. “He’s odd.” Magnus shoos us along the wharf. “This way, boys and girls.”

My lip curls involuntarily. “No more odd that you or I.” Scud may be an unusual friend, but he was my unusual friend and I will always defend him.

Jack reaches for my hand as we follow Magnus. “A bit harsh, don’t you think?”

The anger at my mother is fermenting into resentment that I may have lost Scud. I shake of Jack’s hand. “If you hadn’t been so chatty I might have got rid of him earlier.”

“Big operation. Important to know about these things.”

“Shut it!”

I stalk after Magnus.

A quarter turn round Port Benson, we spot our quarry: the St. John, a sleek schooner moored alongside another pontoon. Streamlined and graceful, this ship, with its tapering blimp and teardrop engines, is all about speed. Strangely, it too has masts laid alongside its hull, ready to be hauled out and rigged with sails. This is a hybrid, a ship pretending to be one thing while actually another; a falcon posing as a pigeon, a privateer.

The St. John looks only lightly armed, but I know from experience that looks can be deceptive. Sure enough, once up the gangplank, a quick peek through a deck-grating reveals its real teeth: swivel mounted compression cannons hidden behind cunningly concealed portholes. At a moment’s notice, this seemingly innocent pleasure yacht can convert into a deadly warship, ready to surprise unsuspected merchant ships.

The St. John, clearly ready to depart, is swarming with her crew. At the top of the gangplank we are met by the captain. An athletic young man who takes my proffered hand and bows to kiss it instead of giving a firm shake. I am tempted to snatch my hand away, but resist the urge as this might be a Reaver custom. I notice he shakes Jack’s hand in the normal way.

Captain Vicroft beams a warm smile in my direction. “Welcome aboard Captain Stonejack, Mr Shoehorn, a pleasure to have you sail with us this fine morning. Mr Wallingham sends his regards.” The broad smile disappears as he dips a familiar nod to our babysitter. “Magnus.”

So this fine privateer belongs to Stan Wallingham—no more hiding our identities and skulking around below decks for me. I hope I can still find time and space to practice my Gun Kata.

“Cast off,” the captain bellows and the crew scurry to pull in the gangplank and get the ship underway.

Jack touches my arm and leans in close. I catch the look of concern in his deep eyes. “We need to pay particular attention to how they sail this thing,” he whispers.

I remove the hand clasping my arm. “Don’t worry Jack, I’m already on it.” A crash course in Reaver sailing would come in real handy about now.

The St. John maneuver’s away from Port Benson using its engines.

“Break out the masts. Mount the sails,” the Captain bellows.

The switch to sail power is smooth and slick. The crew, using winches and pulleys, haul out the masts from their resting places, either side of the outer hull, and run out horizontal sails like giant fans. Wind catches in the sails and the St John leaps eagerly forward.

This is sailing.

The schooner slices through the air like it’s come alive. A sense of elation fills my gut and I find myself grinning from ear-to-ear. Finally, I understand why Reavers love their airships. The St. John is relying only on the elements to power itself and I’m surprised how fast it can go. I would be proud to call this my ship.

Suddenly, I am filled with longing for my old airship, the Shonti Bloom, treacherously stolen from me by Trent. Maybe one day I shall find her again.

In the meantime, I need to learn as much about sailing a Reaver airship as I can before taking command of my own vessel.

I reach out for Jack’s comforting hand, but he is gone; down with the crew, throwing himself into the mechanics of the sailing gear.


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A Dystopian steampunk Author

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