Darker Skies – Chapter 6

Jack and Magnus stare at me as if I have gone mad.

I still cannot believe my own stupidity. It’s not sufficient for me to just ruin Jack’s career, now I have to get him killed too.

I take deep slow breaths and calm my beating heart. “We are betrayed.” Right now I need focus: a clear head, otherwise we are done for. “Jack, the big operation that Scud mentioned-”

“Yes, yes, the Constables cooperating internationally to destroy the pirate Anabella Steenkamph. But I fail to see-”

“-Back on New Frisco, when we were winched on board the mail packet; I didn’t realize it at the time, but I overheard people (probably Constables) discussing the same operation, and they named Anabella Steenkamph’s airship—the Sequestria.”

The blood drains from Jack’s face.

“But that’s the name of our airship.” Magnus is yet to catch up.

Remarkably, even in my current panicked state of mind, I notice how Magnus has staked a claim to the airship in which he is now the sailing master.

A wild thought occurs to me and I choose my words carefully. “Magnus, remember how Stan Wallingham said he needed a pilot to smuggle goods for him, because he already had a diversion in place?”

Magnus nods, warily.

“Well he lied. We are the decoy; we are the diversion. Stan Wallingham set things up so the Constables think I am Anabella Steenkamph.”

“But you don’t look nothing like her. She’s dark and-”

“It doesn’t matter, Magnus. They aren’t going to get close enough to see me, they’re just going to sit off in their gunships and pound us to smithereens—you, me, the crew, our cargo, and this airship.”

I wave Stan Wallingham’s letter in his face. “And this is the time and place it’s going to happen. Your boss has betrayed you, Magnus, and sent you on a one-way mission.”

Magnus stares back with wide eyes and shakes his head. “No. No. Mr Wallingham wouldn’t do that to me. I’ve known him since he was a nipper. I’ve always done whatever he asks. No. Mr Wallingham wouldn’t do that to me.”

“You mean,” Jack asks quietly, “that he’s never bumped off another employee?”

“Of course he has, he’s a gangster, but it’s never personal, just business. Maybe if someone knows too much or …” Magnus sinks slowly into a chair at the table.

“Maybe, you know him too well, Magnus; maybe you know just too much,” I suggest, callously ramming home my advantage. “I’m sure it’s nothing personal; just business.”

Magnus leaps to his feet and smashes his fist on the table. “Well it’s personal to me, Captain, and I ain’t going to let Stan Wallingham get away with it.”

Bingo. “Quite right, Mr… er, Sailing Master, quite right.”

“Tristan,” Magnus says, as if dredging something up from the depths of his mind. “It’s Mr Tristan. Magnus Tristan.”

It never even occurred to me that Magnus might have a family name. I bet Stan Wallingham never knew it. If I’m going to save any of us, I need willing help from Magnus. I also need Jack doing what he is told; whatever I have done to him I cannot afford to be soft on Jack.  Now is the time for action.

“Jack, fetch the ship’s officers and the Coggler Master, we need to make a plan.”

Jack jumps for the door.

“And,” I shout after him, “find a bottle of absinthe for Mr Tristan, I think our Sailing Master needs it.” I turn back to the map spread out on the table and leave Magnus to contemplate life while I study it.

Jack returns shortly with what passes for officers on this ship: the Master Coggler, a diminutive woman with limp brown hair, thick pebble glasses and a sweat stain where her bowler hat normally sits; the carpenter, a stout, grey haired, ruddy cheeked woman with well developed biceps; the sail-maker, a thin nervous chap who keeps twisting his fingers together; and the surgeon, a rotund gent whose cheeks and bulbous nose are riddled with the burst blood vessels of the habitual drunkard. The least inspiring senior ratings I have ever encountered—if this is the best the crew can offer I hate to think what the worst is like.

I introduce myself. “Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform you that just over the horizon a fleet of warships is hunting us, determined to blow this airship out of the skies and kill us all. They mistakenly believe I am the notorious pirate Annabella Steenkamph.”

“Are you?

I stare at the surgeon in disbelief. Unbelievable.

“No, I am not. Our employers have betrayed us. It appears we are the bait for a major smuggling operation. And right now we need to figure out how to keep everyone on this ship alive. I am open to ideas.”

The gaggle of senior ratings gather round the map on the table.

The Master Coggler’s lank hair dangles round her glasses as she examines the map. “Do they know where we are going?”

“Destination, flight path, and arrival time, so obviously we are not going that way.”

Jack points to the city-states on the map. “They’ll be coming at us from all directions whichever way we go.” He shrugs helplessly. “So what’s the point-”

“Not every direction, Captain,” Magnus interrupts, “they won’t be coming at us from below.”

Magnus has a point: the Constables, used to steady high altitude winds won’t naturally think to approach from below. If we are to stand any chance of making an escape it has happen in the turbulent winds below cloud level.

I point, with my left hand, to a Reaver town north east of our current position, almost in the opposite direction to our intended destination, but quite a bit further away. Light, streaming through the rear window glints from the brass of my artificial ligaments. I can sense their eye glued on my coggler enhanced hand, fascinated. “We could head for here.”

The sail maker twiddles his fingers with a pained expression. “It’s the next closes port, ain’t that a bit obvious?”

“They have powered engines, they are faster, and they don’t need to worry much about wind direction, so wherever we go they will catch us up.” The makings of a plan is taking shape in the recesses of my mind. “The safest place for us is in port. They won’t dare destroy the ship in front of witnesses. They might still hunt me ashore, but everyone else will be safe.”

I explore my nascent plan further. “What if we run the propellers non-stop?”

The Master Coggler shakes her head. “We don’t have enough crew for that.”

I disagree. “We have plenty of passengers.”

The Surgeon, sail-maker, and carpenter all stare blankly. I had a feeling this might be a sticking point. With a sigh I sink to their level. “The livestock.”

The carpenter’s mouth falls open. “You would trust the livestock?”

“With due respect, Ma’am,” the surgeon blusters, “passengers pay their own way, livestock is paid for by owners.”

These people are deeply entrenched in their belief that slaves and bonded servants are a class deserving only of contempt and distrust. Well, if they want to survive they will have to change their views pretty damn quick. “If they save our lives by running non-stop in the gearing wheels,” I snap, “they will have paid their way. So we treat them as passengers. Understood?”

The others glare back at me, but no one dissents.

The Master Coggler looks thoughtful. “With the wind adjacent to us, running the windward propeller could help us sail a point closer to the wind. It’s worth a go, Captain.”

The plan crystalizes in my mind. “This is what we do: we ride the side of a Hadley cell east south east down to the lowest cloud level, then catch the south easterly trade winds, north west. By the time the constables realize we’re not where they expect us we’ll have a head start on them. Then it’s a quick sprint to Summer Town, while the constables fight the upper westerly headwinds in the high atmosphere.”

Several heads nod in agreement. The rest look sceptical.

“Mr Shoehorn will organize our passengers into relay teams to run in the wheels. The Sailing and Coggler Masters will get the ship underway. Everyone else throw all non-essential equipment over the side.” Not that I think lightening the load will help much, but it will keep everyone busy and give them something positive to think about. “Dismissed!”

The senior ratings file out one by one. Do they have more of a spring in their step than when they entered, or is it just my imagination?

I cram my leather top hat onto my head and follow everyone to the open deck, where the crew wait sullenly.

Magnus not only has a new spring, he is transformed. He eagerly talks me through getting the ship underway. “When we raise the lateen sails,” he points to the huge triangular sail being hauled up each of the fore and mid masts on the left, or port, side of the ship, “we must also drop the keel sails. Otherwise the wind on the extra surface area will turn the ship over.”

Two further masts, one either side of the stern, are lowered below the hull instead of raised above it. Junk-rigged sails, incorporating horizontal spars to hold them ridged, are hoisted down these masts to form a double keel below the airship. “At least one of the keel sails must remain perpendicular to the wind at all times. Otherwise…” Magnus tips an imaginary ball upside down. “The ship goes over.” The other keel sail can be used, together with the propellers, as a massive rudder.

I have never seen Magnus so animated. Like a hawk freed from the leash, he is enjoying himself.

With the sails rigged the Sequestria moves sluggishly forward. Magnus steps up to the ships wheel in the center of the quarterdeck, and grasps the spokes. The wheel is surrounded by speaking tubes. Magnus picks up one of the brass tubes and shouts down into it. “Port Keel, four points off the port bow.” Gears grind below us as the Cogglers use power from the hampster wheels to move the port keel perpendicular to the westerly wind, to balance the airship.

“You watch the pendant for wind direction.” Magnus points to a long red flag attached to the underside of the blimp, above our heads, streaming out away from the wind. “And you use the tells on the sails to hone the trim.” He points to red ribbons fastened at intervals down the windward length of each sail. At the moment the ribbons hang limp, like the sails.

As the port keel-sail moves into position, the Sequestria starts to roll in that direction.

The crew haul on ropes to trim the sails as Magnus shouts instructions. When the lateen sails catch the wind just right they snap ridged; the tells stream out straight and the Sequestria rights herself and lurches forward like it has just woken from a long sleep.

Magnus picks up the speaking tube again. “Unlock the starboard keel! Port engine ahead one eighth.”

To the right of Magnus is a compass, barometer, altimeter, and two levers side by side. Magnus pulls on the far lever. “This engages the starboard keel-sail to the steering.” Immediately the wheel comes alive and Magnus grasps the spokes to steady the ship.

Left of the ship’s wheel is a peg-board in the center of which is an outline of the Sequestria. Magnus attaches long white pegs to represent the angle of each sail, then a red arrow to represent the wind direction. “We got a lot of forces acting on all these sails so we needs to know how they balance. The board shows the watch exactly where everything is.”

It’s a simple yet brilliant way to communicate all the sail information in one go.

As the Sequestria comes alive, so too do the crew. It is difficult to believe that these efficient energetic sailors are the same sullen crew I met when I boarded.

Magnus steps to one side. “Would you want to take the wheel?”

My heart leaps with excitement. Do I want to steer the ship? Do I want to feel the vibration of the wind feeding up through the ship from the rudder sail? You bet I do. But I restrain myself and sacrifice my own pleasure for another aim. “No, Magnus, you are in charge. She’s all yours.”

He grins at me like a child. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

I step away from the wheel and leave Magnus in charge, my aim achieved: with a combination of betrayal, responsibility, and the rewards of command, I might have just won Magnus over.

Jack crosses the quarterdeck and joins me at the rail, his hat set at a rakish angle. “Not all the Constables will stay high.”

“Scud.” Jack and I both say at the same time.

Jack stares at the horizon as if the Constables are already on our tail. “He will lead them down to the lower air.”

“Only if they listen to him,” I remind, “not everyone does.”

“Do you think he will really betray us?”

I’ve known Scud most of my life; I know exactly what he will do. “Not on purpose, but he is always so keen to please and he takes such pride in his abilities. He will only realize what he has done when it’s too late.”

“He won’t deliberately mislead them for our sakes?”

“Firstly, he doesn’t know we are here. Secondly, Scud doesn’t think of consequences, for him, the right answer is always in solving the puzzle.”

“If Scud leads the Constables down into the lower air, and he will…” Jack nods his head towards the rest of the ship. “Do they know we don’t stand a chance?”

“No. And I want to keep it that way.”

Next Chapter



A Dystopian steampunk Author

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