From my cabin, where I’m practicing a six-point kata star – turn, breach, cock, point, fire, turn – I hear the lookout’s cries.
“Where away?” Magnus is on watch. He has come along quite nicely since his promotion – we could be old sailing buddies.
“Two points off the starboard bow.”
“One point off the port stern.”
“Land Ho! Two points high.”
After five days of running quietly alone, everything it hitting off at once.
I replace my beautiful pistols in their case and mount the steps to the quarterdeck. I restrain myself from running; I must, at all times, appear calm and collected -as befits a captain of authority.
Magnus and Jack are already at the Stern rail staring through telescopes. As I join them Magnus hands me a scope. “Two Constabulary ships, from different states, directly in our wake and overhauling us fast.”
I peer through the glass at the Constabulary ships, bristling with guns, tracking our bearing as if we left a path for them to follow.
I stride purposefully across the quarterdeck, down the steps, and cross to the bow of the ship. There I raise my glass again. Two points off the starboard bow is another airship, dropping fast from the high atmosphere. There are no distinguishing marks or obvious tell-tail design styles – impossible to tell if this ship is friend or foe. Best to assume the worst.
From what I can see of this new ship, it appears to be heading fast for the port of Summertown, which has appeared dead ahead and above of us. To pick up the best of the fading trade winds, we’re flying almost at sea level, buffeted by turbulence generated by the choppy sea below.
Are we sandwiched between a constable pincer movement? Or is the ship ahead of us merely a coincidence? Only time will tell.
Judging by how fast the Constabulary are gaining on us, they will catch up before we reach our destination.
The small port of Summertown is a mini Rimmer hive. I can see three Homeships joined together, forming a circle. Projecting from the circle are pontoons, attached to the sides of the Homeships and supported by balloons, forming a quay that encircles the entire hive at deck Level. The whole arrangement is repeated at hull level to give the hive a double layered port arrangement.
Many of the pontoons in the lower port are already occupied by Rimmer ships, while most of the upper ports are empty: no doubt reserved for trading vessels.
I return to the quarterdeck. “Summertown is dead ahead,” I tell Magnus and Jack. “It’s a quick sprint from here to safety. I want everyone running the hamster wheels as fast as they can, in quick rotation – we need to increase speed or we’re dead.
A nerve wracking hour later, a dull thud sounds from behind us. Even with our increased speed, the lead pursuer is close enough to try a shot. The projectile falls short, but I can see the Constables in their navy blue uniforms, reloading a forward gun.
We are still too far away from the safety of Summertown, at this rate the Constables will soon overhauled us. The next shot bounces weakly off our stern. They are in range, but not yet close enough to do real damage. However, it is only a matter of time.
People are coming alive to our situation in Summertown. One ship has already cast off and others appear to be preparing for departure, whether to come to our aid or just protect the hive, is anyone’s guess. Only when our pursuers are in range of the hive’s big guns will they back off. Though, they could still continue to take pot-shots at us until we are fully out of range.
Even within the protection of Summertown we still might be in danger. If we allow them, the Summertown authorities could still expel us, sending us back out to face the wrath of the Constables. I have no intention of letting that happen.
A crash from below, announces a shell finding its mark. A double thud confirms both Constable airships are now in range. If we carry on like this, we will sustain heavy casualties.
I cross to Jack’s side. “Time for us to surrender!”
Jack is prepared. He runs a white flag up a wire to the rear of the Sequestria’s blimp. For a moment, both Constable ships ease off. Then they realize we are continuing to run and power up again. Both ships fire simultaneously, but their shots fall. We have bought ourselves a few valuable minutes.
Summertown starts to loom ahead and above us as the Constables close in. More shots smash through the Stern windows. The Constables’ gun crews are settling into a steady rhythm.
A whistle sounds from a speaking tube at the ships’ wheel. I pick it up and listen to the voice of the Master Coggler . “The reinforced bulkhead is beginning to give. If we don’t act now, the gearing mechanisms will be wrecked and we will have mass casualties.”
I stare ahead at Summertown. Still too far away. “Prepare for ascent. I want full buoyancy, but don’t lose forward momentum.” I can see three ships leaving Summertown’s port. One fires a warning shot, but whether at us or the Constables it’s impossible to tell. Regardless, we are not stopping.
The hiss of gas, pumping into the blimp’s inflation bags,sounds from withing the chimney joining ship and blimp. We bob up towards Summertown, like a cork out of a bottle. The Constables try to keep us in range, but the angle is too steep and their cannon can no longer bear on us, even though their airships are faster.
The one advantage of stripping the entire vessel of anything surplus to requirements, is a gain in buoyancy. There is no fat left on the Sequestria: everything went over the side. There is no water, food, spare sails, bedding, or weapons. We have removed two-thirds of the deck planking from the lower decks, and even the captain’s table, chairs, and map chest have crashed into the sea below. The Sequestria is nothing more now than a shell. Consequently, the Constable ships cannot match our rate of ascent. This is our final trick.
Before long, it is us who are in range of Summertown’s big guns. They fire a warning shot, but we raise more white flags and continue to power forward as we rise. One of the Constable airships backs off as the hive fires more warning shots, but the other raises its own white flags and continue to pursue us.
Finally, we are level with Summertown’s top ring of docks. We need to ease our ascent. As soon as the remaining Constable matches our altitude, it opens fire again. This time they are closer than ever. Their first shot punches a hole through one of our Lateen sales, which instantly shreds. If we slow the ship to ease pressure on the sail, or to dock, we risk being annihilated.
Magnus turns from the ship’s wheel. “Cap’n, if we don’t slow down we will ram the hive.”
“Mr Tristan, if you can think of a quicker way to disembark this crew, I am open to suggestions.”
The shock on Magnus’ face would be comical in other circumstances. His attempt to protest is interrupted by a crash from the bow which shudders the whole length of the airship. Summertown too has realized we are not slowing, now they are shooting at us with a vengeance. A second shot from the big Summertown guns smashes through our hull at the bow. I close my ears to the screams of the wounded below deck. Cut down by flying splinters from stove in timbers.
I cannot let the cries of the wounded distract me. I must maintain my concentration to preserve as many lives as possible. Every life saved is a bonus snatched from the murderous city-state constabulary.
On Summertown quay our headlong charge is noticed. Screaming pandemonium breaks out. Traders, hawkers, pedestrians, dock workers, flee for their lives. The Sequestria streaks past the pontoon and skims over the heads of the crown on the quay.
“Bring us about starboard Mr Tristan.” I pick up the speaking tube to the Cogglers. “All stop on the starboard engine, full power to port. Prepare to deflate the blimp. Dead-drop on my mark.”
We are over the quay, which has miraculously cleared. I glance behind to see our pursuers have turned back. All we need to do is disembark and we are safe. The Sequestria turns parallel to the deserted quay. “Dead-drop us onto the quay. Release the gas!”
With a splintering crash, the Sequestria belly-flops onto the Rimmer quay. Cannon damage to our hull is worse than I thought. The ship’s hull collapses. Gears, planks, and people burst out through splits and holes as the ship’s structure crumples. The airship settles at an angle as more of the hull gives way. And the deflating blimp descends towards us.
I grab the megaphone. “Abandon ship! All hands abandon ship!”
Crew and passengers pour over the sides and through gaps in the hull — the last gasp of the Sequestria. I have no idea how many people we saved from annihilation, but it looks like a satisfyingly large number. I search for the Constabulary airships – both are standing far off, comfortably out of range of Summertown’s big guns. Under my breath I curse the Constables. Later, I will taunt their captains for failing to catch a wallowing transport with their sleek warships.
Magnus throws a rope over the side. “After you Ma’am.” Time to save ourselves.
“You first Mr Tristan.” Even as only the proxy captain of the Sequestria my pride insists I leave the ship last.
I scoop up my weapons and make to follow Magnus, but Jack grabs my arm. He has a telescope in hand. “Nina, look, the ship that came in before us-”
“Not now Jack we need to go.” In the excitement I have forgotten about Jack. Yes I should feel guilty, but instead I’m annoyed he hasn’t left already, which just makes me feel more guilty.
“You really want to see this.” He points down the quay to where a gaggle of women are making their way towards the wrecked Sequestria.
No, it can’t be. Surely not.
I snatch the scope from Jack and train it on the group, a pang of fear grips my heart. Each woman is dressed in a different colored large-bustled dress and matching top hat. Each hat is adorned with a veil to hide their face: the Daughters of Gaia. How did they get here? More pertinently, how did they out guess me enough to arrive ahead of the Sequestria?
“Over the side, Jack. We’ll make a run for it.”
I follow Jack down the rope and land firmly on Summertown’s quay.
I should have known such an obvious display was a distraction. My scared hand jerks towards a gun in its holster. I calculate the chances of turning, drawing, and shooting at the voice behind me, but even with my new found Gun Kata skills the chances are still nil.
Instead I turn slowly around with my arms held clear of my sides. “Hello, Mother. Which bit of me do you want today?” My left hand twitches as I remember her raking out flesh last time we confronted each other.
Three of her goons, one elegantly dressed all in maroon velvet, a second in scarlet and a third in royal blue, hold pistols on Jack, and the MasterCoggler. Mother, of course, is dressed all in jet-black, highlighted on the collars and cuffs with silver filigree. Like the others, her face is hidden behind a dark veil that hangs from her velvet top-hat. Her dark eyes glare through the veil.
I have no idea what has happened to Magnus — probably made a run for it. I had hoped I was winning him over, but a change of allegiance in the face of assassins is too much to expect from anyone. In his shoes, I wouldn’t hang around either; I would scarper and put as much distance between me and danger as possible.
My mother holds a pistol out at arm’s length, pointed straight at my head. In the other hand, held loosely at her side, she holds a second pistol. “I’m short of time Nina, so I will blunt. All I want, is what the Microtough agent gave you on New Frisco. Then you and your friends can go on your way.”
“Trent died in my arms after your assassin killed him,” I explain reasonably, “if he had anything to tell me, he took it to his grave.”
“Once before Gaia saved the planet and the human race, we-”
“-By committing genocide on an unimaginable scale – wiping humans off the face of the earth. Is that what you mean?”
“Gaia did what was necessary to save the planet.” She makes it sound so reasonable. “Without Earth there is no human race. We saved a remnant, to live in the skies. We saved the human race.”
My mother is mad. “You meddled with nature.”
“My job, as the current Gaia, is to control the scourge of industrialization, so the planet can fully recover. You hold a key tool in that goal and I need it.”
No, not mad – fanatical. And very, very determined. She really believes the trash she spouts and so do her followers, which is why she is so dangerous. To her, the mission is all consuming. More so, even, than her own daughter. “Sorry, Mother, even if I had what you want, I couldn’t let you have it.”
“That is a shame, Nina. I expected better from you.”
She’s making no attempt at sweet talk, or recruit me. I guess she nows I’m like her. “Is that why you left me as an orphan?”
“I have asked you nicely, Nina, now hand it over.” Slowly, and deliberately, she raises her free arm and points her second pistol at the Sequestria’s Master Coggler. “Give!” she snaps. Her right eye has a tick and in a flashback to my youngest days, I instinctively know this is a sign of danger.
“There is nothing to give, Mother,” I bluff. “Now please let us-”
“Lies!” Her whisper sends chills cascading down my back. I have no idea what she might do next, but at least she hasn’t hurt anyone yet.
I try to keep everything nice and calm. “Mother, there really is noth-”
The Master Coggler crumples like a rag doll, without a sound, a drizzle of blood running from the neat hole between her eyes. More blood, dark and fresh, pools rapidly round the back of her head and her crumpled bowler hat. Damn, I never even knew her name.
Mother expertly slams her spare pistol against her thigh to pump another shot into the breach, cocks the gun, and points it at Jack. “Lies, Nina,” she says slowly and deliberately. “All lies.”
I can’t keep my eyes away from the blood still spreading round the fallen coggler. I should be filled with horror and panic; I should be shaking with fear and dread. Instead I feel numb and coldly calculate the next logical course of action. What is wrong with me? Am I not human? Why do people around me keep dying? What defect in my nature draws violence towards me? I get myself into trouble and everyone else pays the price. I should have given in gracefully before we reached this point, now the coggler has paid with her life for my misjudgment.
“It’s right here, Mother, in my jacket. I’ll just reach in and get it.” Slowly, I move my right hand towards the lapel of my jacket. As I do, my mother’s attention strays elsewhere and her aim wavers away from Jack.
I know I shouldn’t gamble with Jack’s life, but I just can’t believe my luck, and mother does need to pay for her crimes. Inside my jacket, instead of going for the vial, I close my hand around the small double-shot derringer snuggled in its pocket. In one swift Kata movement, I draw the gun, knock my mother’s pistol arm aside with my wrist, cock the mechanism, and point the tiny gun at her face.
Except she no longer has a pistol in her hand; either hand. Neither do her colleagues.
I’ve missed something here. Something important.
“Drop your weapon, Ms Steenkamph! You are surrounded.”
I widen my focus and realize we are indeed surrounded, by a motley crew of a dozen gun wielding citizens, all sporting tin badges in the shape of stars.
The speaker, a swarthy, rugged individual, with a deep gravelly voice, is adorned in a white top-hat, black frock-coat, and white waistcoat.
“Sheriff,” my mother wails, “she shot my coggler.”
“Not to worry, Ma’am, you and your ladies are safe with me.” If only he knew the nature of the snakes he is swearing to protect.
Other than the Sheriff and his deputies I am the only person with a weapon in view. Every gun is centered on me.
“I am not Annabe-”
“-Surrender your weapons.”
This is not the time to argue: I am outmaneuvered.
Slowly, I uncock the derringer and drop it to the ground. Even slower, I draw my other pistols, using only the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and place them gently on the quay.
A deputy steps in, pulls my hands roughly behind my back and snaps my wrist into cuffs. “Annabella Steenkamph, you are under arrest.”
I hear the sheriff chortle as the deputy leads me away. “This one is going to make me famous.”
“Oh, Sheriff,” my mother groans and swoons into his arms. I bet she’s just picked his pockets.
I feel sick.
Darker Skies – Chapter 7
From my cabin, where I’m practicing a six-point kata star – turn, breach, cock, point, fire, turn – I hear the lookout’s cries.