Darker Skies – Chapter 3

Inky blackness. Claustrophobic darkness.

Squished into a feto position, I am helpless inside a mail bag. This is how Stan Wellingham is smuggling Jack and I off New Frisco: as last minute cargo for a mail-packet. I concentrate on sitting as still as a stone while the bag is readied for hoisting into the hold of the airship by a pulley system.

To distract myself from the fear and self-loathing at what I have done to Jack’s career, I focus on the sounds and snatches of conversation around me.

“Heave away!” Ropes creak as the sack, with me inside, raises into the air.

“Big international operation…”

“Finally rid the world of Annabella Steenkamph…”

But that only reminds me that I’m sat helplessly in the dark with no control over my situation. I hate doing nothing. I hate even more not having any control over my own fate. I try to focus again on my surroundings.

“Slave ring…”


The sack hovers briefly in mid-air, my mind trying to connect all the disparate strands of conversation in the darkness. But nothing connects, of course: they are just snatches of different conversations. My mind is like that. If there is nothing to focus on, no obstacle to overcome, no data with which to plot, my mind will just try to tie together any old random thoughts or conversations.

“Look lively—I want to get away from here before the constabulary fleet chokes all the moorings. Lower away!”

I drop unceremoniously into the hold of the mail ship. Air whooshes from my lungs as I land on a heap of musty mail bags, which gives me something else to think about.

Soon, the hold is sealed and the sounds of the dock recede, replaced instead by the creak of ropes and the hum of bio engines: the airship is in flight.

“Nina, are you there?” Jack whispers from somewhere nearby.

“Yes. Sounds like you are on the other side of the hold.” I am tempted to slip a knife from its hiding place in my boot and slit open the sack, but we were told to wait for release. “Jack, about your career.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Which makes me even more fearful. “I’m sure we can figure out a way to buy Wellingham off, or blackmail him into silence.”

Jack actually laughs. “Blackmail is a feature of the job, Nina. If it isn’t Wellingham threatening to expose our deal, it’s my dad piling on the emotional pressure to bend a favour for one of his cronies. You learn to play one off against another and try to do a little good on the way.”

What really concerns me is the way I never gave Jack’s career a moment’s thought before selling him out to Wellingham. “But you’re absent without leave, a named fugitive.”

“An advantage of having a father who is Mayor, is he can be very forgiving when he needs a rule tweaked in his favor. The important thing, for the moment, is that you are safe.”

“Shh, I hear someone coming.”

A key rattles in a lock; a door bangs; heavy boots clump on the deck then scrunch over mail sacks.

“You two can be heard from one end of the ship to the other,” the new comer growls. “How am I meant to keep the presence of stowaways secret with you two bellowing at each other?”

I’m sure we were just whispering, certainly using less volume than our rescuer.

More scrunching feet on mail bags, then silence, followed by a groan. What has happened to Jack? I reach for the knife in my boot.

Someone running on the mailbags, then someone fumbling with the knot securing the sack. I raise my knife ready to strike. Suddenly, a bright light stabs through the darkness and Jack’s smiling face is haloed with light. He reaches in a hand to help me up. Relief floors through my chest—Jack is okay.

Another face appears as Jack helps me peel off the mail sack. A swarthy individual, with grizzled grey hair, looking to be in his late forties or fifties; wearing a long, patched, tan coloured great-coat. He Looks like he slept in his clothes and just got out of bed.

“I’m Magnus,” our rescuer growls, “I’m yer babysitter.” A wave of alcohol hits my face. Absinthe, I’d know that smell a mile off: Uncle Felix used to drink far too much of the stuff and on our rare visits to his trading platform I would always smell it on his breath.

Magnus ambles down the pile of mail sacks. “Come with me and I’ll get yer kitted out.”

Jack puts a strong arm around my waist to help me descend the uneven mound, like I’m some delicate maiden. Normally I would shake myself free—it’s not as if I need help. But I owe him, over the career thing, so I let him gallantly assist me.

“What kit?” I demand to distract myself from Jacks feeble attempts to guide me.

Magnus glances back and laughs. At least he tries to, but his laugh ends in a dry hacking cough. When the coughing fit ends he wheezes on, “Can’t have you in those fancy city-state clothes. Anyone can tell a mile off yous from the Republic. You meant to be honest Reaver folk, so you need to look the part.”

We follow Magnus out of the hold, up a dingy ladder and through the cramped crew quarters of the small ship. Magnus shows us into a large cabin. Light floods in through leaded windows, which stretch the whole width of the ship. The windows open onto a sunlit panorama of fluffy white cumulus mountains. I presume this is the Captain’s cabin. A large table dominates the middle of the room, set with six high-backed chairs; a wide hammock peeks from behind a side screen, and a black compression cannon sits in each back corner admiring the view.

Magnus closes the cabin door behind us. “You stays in here for the duration of the trip. No going on deck, no talking to the crew, no showing yourself. Got it?”

I run my hand over the polished table. Great, more confinement—I’m going to go mad with nothing to do, even worse if Jack turns all lovey-dovey. If I ever end up in prison it’s the end of me. “So how long do we stay here?”

Magnus removes two bundles from a concealed cupboard. “The mail packet ‘as a few stops to make before we disembark at Newark, so four or five days. ‘Here, put these on.” He hands us a bundle of clothes each.

After a moment’s hesitation, in which I realise Magnus has no intention of leaving me to dress in private, I slip behind the side screen and hastily pull on the unfamiliar clothes.

When I emerge, Magnus pouring himself a generous portion of the Captain’s absinthe. Without looking up, he waves his hand towards a full length mirror he has procured from somewhere.

I look at myself in the mirror. I’m wearing Reaver garb: ruffled blouse, a leather corset (which I have left unfastened), Capri pants and grey striped stockings. Luckily, I’m still wearing my own boots.

There’s nothing worse than walking the deck of an airship with aching feet caused by a pair of badly fitting boots.

Magnus wanders over to inspect me with a large glass of absinthe in one hand. “Do up your corset.”

Reluctantly, I fasten only the central brass catch. “I hate corsets, they restrict my breathing and cramp my movements.” I flex and twist to prove how supple I am without the imprisoning corset.

We all sway as a crosswind hits the ship and some of Magnus’ absinthe slops out the glass. “Darn.” He points the dripping glass a me. “That’s as maybe, but you’re a Reaver of quality now, an’ you gotta blend in. It’s not about what’s practical; it’s all about fashion see?” He clocks my blank expression and tries again. “A Reaver lady with no corset is about as shocking as a man without a shirt.”

Ah. I breathe in and reluctantly fasten the rest of the brass catches up the front of the corset. I really have to squeeze to attach the very top one—I suspect this catch may suffer irreparable damage as soon our babysitter turns his back.

Magnus nods his approval. “Now that is a ladylike shape.”

“I might do Reaver fashion, but I’m not going to be a pirate, and I’m not a cannibal.”

Magnus roars with laughter and spills more of his stolen drink as his hacking cough returns. “Cannibals? You fallen for that old Nerf trick?”

“I’ve seen them myself,” I inform him, remembering the Reaver raid I witnessed that wiped out Cutters End.

“Seen what? Human bodies roasting over open fires? Headless torsos with flopping arms and legs?”

“Something like that?”


“What?” I think the absinthe has finally hit his brain, though I would have expected a hardened drinker like him to require substantially more.

“Geese. Take a couple of geese, plucked, decapitated, and speared end to end on a spit. From a distance they looks like humans roasting on a spit. It’s an old Nerf warrior trick to terrify their enemies into thinking they’re cannibals.” Magnus is grinning widely, showing off a set of crooked yellow teeth.

It’s a trick, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Inwardly I smart. “Well, I will not be a pirate.”

Magnus takes another slug of absinthe from his glass. “All Reavers are pirates.”

I glare daggers at him and slip on the heavy overcoat, which in true Reaver fashion is gorgeously stitched with a paisley pattern of cogs and gears. A double row of brass buttons fastens the coat securely right up to the chin. In my hand I hold a captain’s top hat. Not the tall stately felt sort worn by those of privilege, but a stubby leather version suitable for all weathers. This will stay glued to my head as wind and rain whip across the open deck of an airship. Resting on the rim of the hat are the ubiquitous Reaver goggles.

As an aviatrix, goggles come in real handy against, wind, inclement weather and cold, but here in the Reaver world, the wearing of goggles also shows respect to their brass gods, Coggler, Goggler, and Nerf.

I’m beginning to learn that Reaver society is organised into a number of castes, grouped around their brass gods: Air crew, merchants, and traders honour Goggler, god of the air; engineers, tinkerers, and inventors honour Coggler, god of minerals; soldiers, assassins, and warriors honour Nerf, the brass god of war.

I dig around in the pocket of my jackets to retrieve my new identity papers. “Magnus, couldn’t you have done better than Nina Stonejack?”

“Stonejack,” Magnus responds, “is an old and well respected Reaver name, it also happens to be the name of a real person whose identity you have assumed.”

I refrain from asking what happened to the real Nina Stonejack as I’m sure I’d rather not know.

Never ask a question to which you don’t want the answer.

Jack is similarly dressed, but of course not in Capri pants or corset. Instead, he has long woollen pants tucked into knee-length boots. And under his brown frock-coat, he’s wearing a black waistcoat embroidered with silver thread. For a moment I stand and stare at him, handsome in his Reaver garb. Even his top hat, shorter than mine of course, sets off his square jawed face. We grin at each other across the table like children playing dress up. At least I have retained my first name. Jack needs to claim the name Edward Shoehorn. He hates the name already.

I grin at Jack’s discomfort. “Well, Edward Shoehorn, don’t you look the dashing gent?”

“You can still call me Jack, Nina.”

“Only in private Jack. We need to keep up the pretence so the Reavers don’t realise you are not one of them. It would be safest if I just call you Edward in all circumstances.”

“Ha, ha, Nina. Now what?”

Magnus presents me with a stiletto dagger, beautifully engraved on the hilt and inlaid with different metals—a quality weapon, a captain’s weapon. Engraved into the hilt, in a curly stylised font, are the letters, ‘NS.’ Not, I’m guessing, for Nina Swift, but possibly the property of one Nina Stonejack.

Next Magnus produces a cutlass: not the thinly disguised meat cleavers used by the crew, but a short well-crafted slightly curved sword suitable for close combat in confined spaces. I wonder if this also belonged to Nina Stonejack.

Jack is beginning to look a little disgruntled. “So where are my weapons?”

Magnus shrugs. “You gets what is issued to the crew.” Then he dumps a thin leather-bound carry-case on the table in front of me.

Carefully I open the lid of the case. Inside, nestled in black velvet, are two well-crafted pistols. They are beautiful.

I hold up a shiny gun with little handles, wheels, cogs, and a pressure gauge. “What is this?”

Jack spins the case around to face him. “This,” he holds up the other pistol, a mirror image of the one I hold in my hand, “is a top-of-the-range Girardoni repeating pistol. Lead balls are loaded into this magazine,” he indicates a tube running down the side of the barrel. “To get a shot into the firing chamber, you hold the gun up vertically, so the spare balls roll down the tube. Then, you see this square block sticking out the left side of the gun at the base of the barrel?’

I nod.

“It’s the breach block.” Still holding the gun vertical, Jack presses the breach block gently with the palm of his left hand, so it slides across to end of the magazine. “The lowest ball falls into the breach and this sprung piece of metal on the right side of the gun pushes the breach block back. The ball is now positioned in the barrel of the gun.”

I’m impressed. “Neat.”

Jack’s action looks slick and efficient. Then he cocks the gun using the thumb of his right hand. “Cocking the gun ratchets up a spring mechanism inside connected to a firing pin. You can safely lock the mechanism in place using this button behind the breach, until you want to fire the gun. You can, if you want, unscrew the handle of the pistol, which is a high-pressure gas chamber and replace it with another one.”

Jack unscrews the handle of the pistol and points to something inside the body of the gun. “Here we go. That’s the end of the firing pin, waiting to release compressed air from the handle canister and drive the shot out the barrel.” He screws the gun back together. “All you do now is release the safety, aim, and pull the trigger.”

Jack pushes open one of the leaded cabin windows and aims the pistol through it. He pulls the trigger. With a loud Pussst the ball is fired. Then he loads the pistol again: point barrel to ceiling, slap left hand across the breach block, cock with right thumb, level, aim, fire.

Simple. Elegant. Efficient. Beautiful.

“Accurate to about twenty-five yards,” Jack continue.

“How many shots?” I ask, excited at the prospect of owning such a weapon—if only for a short time,.

“The magazine holds up to eight balls at a time which you can fire in quick succession. Each pressurised pistol stock has enough pressure to fire off twelve shots before replacement. A really neat piece of coggler engineering, Nina.”

Then Jack gins, like a child with a secret. “And you’ll like this. Snap out this little handle to the side of the breach, wind it three hundred times and you have enough additional pressure for five extra shots—just in case you run out of pressurised canisters. Each pistol comes complete with two canisters which you pressurise with the pumping kit stored in the case. You don’t see guns like this on the island states of the republic.”

I have to admit the Girardoni pistol is an elegant piece of craftsmanship. The Reaver Cogglers have excelled themselves with this design, so much simpler and more efficient than the clumsy compression weapons issued on New Frisco. This could very well become my weapon of choice. On the stock of each pistol are carved the initials NS. I desperately want them to stand for Nina Swift, but I know they don’t.

I’m beginning to suspect Reaver culture is a lot more sophisticated than I have previously suspected. Certainly any Coggler who creates such a masterpiece cannot be the product of the backward, crude, barbarian society I have always been taught.

But a doubt niggles at my mind. “Okay, clever-clogs, this gun belt I’m wearing has two holsters, and that pistol box contains a brace of weapons. If I’m using both hands to fire a single weapon, what do I do with the other gun?”

Jack examines the second pistol with a frown. “They are mirror images of each other, so I guess they are meant to be used together, but that could get very clumsy.”

“Girardoni Gun Kata.” Magnus glances up from his empty glass. “Gun Kata. It’s like a martial art that helps you perfect your timing so you can load and fire both pistols continuously. It can take a lifetime to perfect, but seeing a master at work is dazzling—beautiful almost.”

For a moment I think Magnus is going to become emotional, but then he pulls himself together and continues.

“I’m no expert, but if you pour me another drink I’ll teach you the basic moves.”

A small glass of absinthe is followed by another, then several more, and then lots more. Between drinks, Magnus, with a pistol in each hand, teaches Jack and I the steps and moves for the basic set patterns of Girardoni Gun Kata. As I stretch, twist and whirl, the top catch of my corset is an early casualty.

Using wrists, elbows, thighs, and occasionally a boot heal, we practice slapping across the loading breaches while wielding a pistols in each hand. I think I may have just found something on which to focus for the duration of our confinement. Jack will be disappointed.

By the time dusk dims the sky and Magnus is sozzled in drink, I feel confident I can handle two pistols, if somewhat slowly. In fact, I can still fire seven shots from a single gun, using both hands, faster than I can fire four from two guns. The timing, however, is starting to come together. I guess it’s mostly a matter of practice to build up the muscle memory before pushing yourself for greater speed.

Long after Jack has dragged Magnus off to his cabin and retired for bed, I am still practising my Gun Kata.


Next chapter

A Dystopian steampunk Author

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