Authors: Raven Bond
The Invaders came from the sky,unleashing their death rays on the Earth. From Mars some said, or beyond.Cities fell before them, one after the other. A Great Alliance was formedbetween countries who had played at war against each other in the time before.Queen Victoria brought together a convocation of scientists, among them theSavant, Tesla. The knowledge of city shields and ways to fight against the foewent out to everyone who would listen, in all corners of the world. Mad scienceand mystery worked hand in hand with human courage.
Thirty years later, in the 1890’s,the world has changed beyond recognition. The Invaders have been driven off,some say all killed, but is that just a story? Those whoare left covet the power they had before the Reconstruction. Others embracethis new world and the freedom it brings after the War.
The Airship Wind Dancer is led byCaptain William Hunting Owl, a tribesman from the Americas. Together with hisfirst officer, a former British Air captain, and a Hindu Sorceress Assassin, hefights to keep his ship flying. The crew of the privateer comes from every FreePort still standing. They seek to make a living in a world that has few rulesexcept for the Articles that guide life on the ship. Their shipmates are theirfamily; all have lost something they held dear, and few speak of it.
William Hunting Owl and LawrenceRogers seek to discover who killed Will’s father. They are willing to dowhatever it takes to find their answers.
Secret War Steampunk Series
Adventure, Mystery + MadScience
For the amazingSeattle steampunk community
Airship Wind Dancer, Bengal Province
Free India States 1896
Thirty years after the Great War
The airship turned gracefullythrough the valleys of the first mountain peaks of the Darjeeling Hills. Hersilver-gray skin seemed to absorb the sun as it slanted behind her. For allthat the ship appeared huge from the ground, it was as silent as a floatingfeather, her bladeless impellers making a faint humming sound like many bees.Along the sides of the main cigar-shaped body was painted a very realisticHindu dancer and beneath her form the wordsFAS Wind Dancer. Under the mainbody was a section towards the front,with windows that looked out overthe ground like huge eyes.
William Hunting Owl, Captain of the Wind Dancer didn’t liketo be surprised, especially by people shooting at his ship. Being shot at camewith the job, but still, he preferred to be the one doing the shooting. Theyhad just begun dropping altitude to survey the wreck of their quarry, the EastIndia Company airship Raja Goh, when the ambush came.
They had been hired to investigate the fate of the merchantship after she had gotten off a short distress call. The big fear for the EastIndia Company was that air raiders of some kind had moved into the northerntrade route to Darjeeling. The Company had an exclusive route between Calcuttaand Darjeeling in Free India that was very profitable. The thought that airraiders might finally be making it this far north had scared someone enough atthe Company to pay theWind Dancer’s not inconsiderable fees just totake a look-see. Judging from the wreckage scattered about the side of thehill, Will figured that fear was right.
Will had been looking through the heavy, armored glasswindows that ran deck to ceiling in a half circle around the forward part ofthe Dancer’s bridge. The bridge was awash in the bright sunlight of a cloudlessday. The lookouts did a good job of spotting, but he still liked his own eyeson things when possible. The land below was low rising scrub coming up againstthe mountains. He could almost feel the heat rising off the ground beneath him.In lots of ways the land reminded him of the Montana lands he had hunted in asa boy. The wreck site to starboard was as still as a lonely grave. In thisharsh hill country any survivors would have made sure to stay close to thewreck, shooting flares and awaiting rescue, unless someone had already killedthem all. That said raiders to Will.
He had called for action stations as soon as they’d spottedthe wreck of what had to be theRaja Goh. When no attack cameimmediately, he’d ordered them to slow and make a landing approach on the wrecksite. Although the skies looked clear of traffic, a camouflaged sky raidercould strike with the man-made lightning of a coil cannon from any line ofsight. Rockets really weren’t a concern until close range as a coil cannoncould spread its fire to intercept most projectiles in mid-flight, destroyingthem. Will had hoped that he could trick the raiders into revealing themselvesbyWind Dancerappearing to come in fat and happy.Dancer’selectronics and engines were battle- hardened better than most ships. Theycould take an electrical strike or two, without worry, especially with the sidegun-ports sealed up as Will had ordered.
Modern airship−to−airship fighting was seen asmore of a battle of endurance than a battle of maneuver; the ship that hitfirst and hit hardest usually won. Coil cannon made that first punch. While notas vulnerable as a grounded target would be to its massive electrical bolts, acoil cannon strike was still deadly to airships. The first coil strike wouldusually only cause a ship to be wreathed in a discharge like St. Elmo’s fire.The bigger danger was that it would destroy the more delicate electronics andengines of a ship, leaving it to float helplessly by its air cells while anattacker closed in. Most merchants did not bother to shield their systems.Extra weight cut into profit.
If the first strike failed, repeated strikes would change aship’s hull resistance until there was either an electrical failure of theships systems, or a burn through of the hull itself. This was where things gottricky for a raider. It often only took one burn−through to send thehellish lightings careening through a ship to destroy it, especially if theship was using one of the cheaper lift gas mixes that were flammable. Thatmeant no cargo and no profit. A raider captain had to be canny and have a lighttouch to succeed. Still, no raider would resist the opportunity to make thatfirst strike in hopes of having an easy target.
Will had used that ‘conventional wisdom’ to his advantagemore than once. They’d madeDancertougher than any light cruiser had aright to be. He was confident that she could take a hit from even a dreadnoughtand spit right back in their eye. His train of thought was cut off as he feltthe vibrations of a gun firing through the deck plates. He turned to his bridgetalker, Naomi, his long hair braids whirling as he whipped his head towardsher. "Who's firing?" He snapped. The ship was supposed to be buttoneddown, side gun ports closed so as to give a coil strike no way to spill intothe ship.
"Port Hotchkiss gun number one reports rocket flarecoming at six points to port. Gunner reports it appears to be telesmatic. Theysay it’s coming from the ground, Captain!” Naomi Walters sat the interphonestation which linked all the ships phones and speakers though a switchboard.Though she would never give an order of her own, it was her voice that sentcrew running and guns firing, as well as relaying to the bridge reports fromthe different stations of the ship. She was listening to such a report even ashe spoke. She looked at him as she listened, her normally calm mannervanishing.
“They are firing to intercept!”
Will cursed himself for a fool. Telesmatics were Aetherwaveguided rockets, difficult to evade or shoot down. He’d been too focused on anair attack. The ship was positioned all wrong for the coil cannon to intercepta rocket attack from the ground. Come to that, he thought wildly, thereshouldn’t beanyonewith that kind of firepower in this bleakwilderness! And whoever heard ofgroundraiders attacking airshipsanyway? All an unarmed airship needed to do was toss a few sticks of explosiveout a cargo hatch at them, and to hell with the Alliance rules against bombing.
His body braced for the blow that he knew had to come, evenas he tried to see where it came from. An explosion flowered mere yards off theport side, close enough that the ship rocked in its wake.
"They got it by God!" Someone on the bridgeexclaimed. Will knew a moment of amazement himself that they weren’t hit,shooting a ‘matic rocket out of the sky like that with one projectile gun wasakin to shooting a raindrop with a peashooter. The side guns were mainly usefulfor ship−to−ground and ship−to−ship fighting. Whoeverthat gunner was, they’d just earned themselves a bottle in bonus, he vowed tohimself.
"Rocket flare to port!” One of the bridge lookoutsshouted, “And another one!"
"All port guns fire to suppress!" Will ordered.“Drop ballast, emergency ascent!" It was doubtful that they'd get so luckyagain, but that gunner had had the right idea. The only hope they had now wasto rise out of the range of those rocketsfast. Usually, portablerockets only had a few thousand yards before they burned out. TheDancer’sgun ports snapped open and the other five Hotchkiss guns added their fire tothe first, trying to throw a wall of lead between the ship and the approachingrockets. Pipes opened as theWind Dancer’swater reserves emptied,dropping an unexpected shower on the dusty ground below. Having shrugged offher weight, theWind Dancer’snose pointed upwards as she climbed forthe heavens, streaks of fired chasing her. It was now a race.
Throughout the ship, people scrambled for handholds as thedeck tilted unexpectedly beneath them. Drinking cups and papers slid untofloors. Will made his way across the slanted deck to grab onto the map table.His eyes met those of his First Officer, Lawrence Rogers. Rogers was alreadybracing himself against the other side of the table. The older man met his gazeand simply shook his head. Rogers didn’t think they were going to make it thistime. Will swore softly at himself again, and grabbed the table harder, bracinghimself for the impacts to come.
For what seemed like an eternity, the bridge held its breathwaiting for the explosions that would tear into the hull. With mercilessregularity, Sukoto Matori at the elevation station continued counting off thefeet of their ascent in a monotone, her eyes never leaving her gauge. When shecalled two thousand feet, Will and Rogers looked at each other over the table.Slowly Will’s face moved from grim to astonished. He broke out into the wideboyish grin that looked so incongruous beneath his blade of a nose, his teethgleaming white against his mahogany skin.
"I think we beat them," he said to Rogers softly.
"Too bloody close that," Rogers agreed, expellinghis own held breath. "Orders, Captain?"
"Level off, and come about. Cannon to target thoselaunchers,” Will said grimly. He’d finish what whoever-they-were had started.
Rogers began issuing the orders. Rogers still used theBritish Air Navy’s address of ‘Mr.’ for both sexes, a habit that Will foundamusing. He preferred to use people’s first names, which was more common amongthe Tribes’ forces, much to Rogers’ private despair. Will had to admit thoughthat Rogers complemented his own style well, with British spit ‘n polish teamedup with American Tribal cunning. Together with Saira Brighton they had turnedout the best private fighting ship on either side of the Pacific.
Will watched in silence as the bridge crew replied smartly toRogers’ orders, noting their responses with pride. They were a taut ship. Momentsfrom facing being blown out of the sky, and they werestilltaut.Leaving Rogers to it, he crossed to the port electric lens. Dancer had three ofthem, and they were better than any telescope. Rather than use glass, theysomehow used electricity between the two rims to magnify things. Will didn’tknow more than that about how they worked, nor did he care really. He knew theywere damned expensive, and he was glad for the edge they provided.
Giving the rims a practiced twist, Will focused it on the distantmovement on the ground. The image leaped sharp into a view of the attackers.They had pulled away camouflage to reveal a depression filled with horses,three launchers, and a supply wagon. He saw figures desperately racing to movebulky rockets from the wagon to the wheeled launchers. He looked closer.
Will didn’t see any uniform on them. They looked to him to benatives who had precious little training from the way they fumbled about. Theyseemed to range in age from oldsters to boys barely man high, and there wereenough of them that he figured he was likely looking at every male in thetribe. Will twisted the lens rims again to bring the focus tighter, and saw afigure with a beard and a long sword haranguing the others. He looked to be thelocal chieftain who Will guessed had probably beggared his tribe for thelaunchers to go air-merchant hunting. Idiot. No great loss to his people whenhe dies, Will thought remorselessly. Too bad the tribe was about to become muchsmaller due to his stupidity. He heard Naomi report that the cannon wastargeting the depression holding the launchers. He nodded to himself indecision. They had tried to kill his ship, so kill them all.
“Captain to cannon,” Will said, his voice betraying none ofhis feelings, “Fire as you bear, full charge.” He paused to set his gogglesover his face, then continued to watch the targets on the ground. One group haddropped a rocket and were being yelled at by a sword-wielder. He faintly heardNaomi relay his orders over her phone. The light tubes dimmed as the shipsimpellers stopped, the entire energy of the Tesla engines thrown into thecannon for an instant.
A bolt of man-made lightening, yards across, crackedmassively from the cannon muzzle mounted at thenoseof the upper hull. Evenwith his goggles over his eyes, Will automatically closed them, turning hisface away. The all too familiar smell of ozone washed over him.
The bolt struck at such speed that the tribesmen swarmingover the supply wagons and the three horse-drawn launchers never even had timeto feel death. Burning at three thousand degrees where it touched the earth,the bolt simply flashed them to carbon. Those remaining at the edges of thestrike, deafened and blinded, were killed when the secondary explosions from theflash burned missiles rolled over them.
The bridge lookout, darkened goggles over her eyes, reportedthe hit. This time a raucous cheer went through the bridge, and Rogers had tocall for quiet. Will smiled to himself as he looked back through the lens. Thebridge reaction was understandable. Not one airship in ten could say thatthey’d out−fought a guided rocket ambush without a scratch. They’d beusing the story to buy themselves drinks in airdevil dives for a year.
Will watched the expanding cloud on the surface. He thoughthe could just make out a couple of small dots riding away from the explosion,the sole survivors of their stupidity. His lips skinned back from his teeth inanger. He hoped the survivors realized what that idiot of a leader had done tothem. His actions meant that the tribes’ old life was over whether they wishedit or no. Even if the Company didn’t send punitive attacks, without enough mento continue on as they had, horse raising, raiding and such, they would nowhave to learn a new life. What a waste. They’d tried to attack the rich airtrade of their neighbors as if it was an old caravan of camel riders. Theyprobably thought they werebrave,he thought disgustedly.Heremembered his grandfather early on in the Great War against the Invaders.
Standing Bear had marveled to his young grandson Will that hehad lived long enough to fight the ‘metal demons’ from the sky during what thewhite folk called the Martian War. It had been a fight to write songs of,Standing Bear had said proudly. That was just before Standing Bear had diedfrom the horrible burns of the Invaders’ heat rays. He had been one of the fewto live even that long after those early battles of horses against the giant,many legged war machines from the sky.
That was before the Spirit Walker Wovoka brought the GhostDance to the Tribes, showing them that they must all fight together. Will’sfather and the rest of the First Peoples had embraced the Dance. Then they hadembraced the war science offered by the White Queen of Britain to fight theinvaders. The United Tribes had joined the Alliance of Nations and had foughtbeside the people of many countries, across many lands. The Tribes had learnedthe new ways of war.
On the battlefield, or in the sky, they became known by theGhost Dance war cry,Ay Ay Yao, the call to the spirits to fight besidethem. To judge by their victories, the spirits did. After the Alliance haddefeated the Invaders, the Ghost Warriors turned what they had learned againstthe white governments of North America. In a short bloody war, they had pushednot only both American governments, the Union and the Confederacy, off theirlands and all the way back to the Great River of the Mississippi in the East,but the British Empire as well, all the way to the Hudson’s Bay in the North.Now, Will thought grimly, now Standing Bear’sgrandson,William HuntingOwl, was one of those metal demons from the sky.
Ay Ay Yao, he snarled silently at the retreating dotson the ground. You either learn or you die, he thought, but either way it willnever be the same for you. The ways of your forefathers will be no more.
Schooling his face to look more pleased than he felt, heturned to face the bridge. The attackers were dead, his people were alive, andthat was all that really mattered. He issued orders crisply as he walked backtowards where Rogers stood.
“Come about, maintain elevation. I want to do a full circlearound that wreck before we go down. If there are any more goatherds with grownup toys down there, let’s smoke them out. Naomi, phone Arms-Master Brightonwith my complements, and she’s to form a landing party. I will be joiningthem.” He pulled down his goggles and opened his fleece lined vest as he cameto stand by his first officer.
Like most airdevils, he wore layers of mis-matched clothesthat could go on and off easily. Even electric heating grates couldn’t keep thetemperature uniform though out a shipWind Dancer’ssize as she movedfrom the icy heights to close to the ground. Along with the vest, Will had apersonal fondness for the supple leather pants that Tribal airdevils wore tuckedinto their ship boots. Without the spyglass that was holstered on his belt nextto his father’s old fifty caliber revolver, there was nothing to mark him asWindDancer’scaptain. Everyone wore a badge in the shape of theWindDancer’sensign, a woman dancing in the center of a circle, done in brightbrass. The only one aboard who wore anything close to a uniform was LawrenceRogers, who somehow was always dressed in black, as if he was still in the BAN,the British Air Navy.
“That was a close one,” Will said quietly to Lawrence Rogers.The former royal Navy officer nodded agreement.
“We were damned lucky,” Rogers agreed in a soft voice, hispale blue eyes serious. Rogers rarely swore. “That Hotchkiss gunner likelysaved the ship.”
“Find out who was on that port Hotchkiss, Naomi.” Will turnedhis head back to his talker, “Tell them they have a bonus coming.” She noddedand spoke into her horn. Will turned back to his first officer. “I think that’sonly right don’t you?” He continued softly again.
“I believe I will give them a bottle myself,” Rogers noddedin agreement. “Do we know who the attackers were?”
“They looked to be local tribesmen.” Will pulled absently onone of the braids he had draped over a shoulder. “If they were, you know whatthat could mean,” he concluded grimly.
“That means that someone is likely selling modern weapons tothe wild tribes up here.” Rogers looked equally grim upon hearing this. “Theywon’t like hearing that in Calcutta,” he said, referring to the capitol of whatwas now called ‘Free India’. The American tribes weren’t the only ones to fightfor their freedom after the war. India, once the ‘Jewel of the British Empire,’was now divided in half. “Nor in Bombay for that matter,” Rogers continued,referring to the capitol of British India.
“Captain,” Naomi said, raised her voice, “the port gun wasmanned by Arms−Master Brighton. She acknowledges she is forming a landingparty, and quote, ‘what do you have in mind Captain?’ end quote,” Naomifinished blandly. Will glanced at Rogers, seeing the older man’s face turn redwith suppressed anger.
“Well, looks like our resident witch has pulled off anotherone,” he whispered to Rogers smiling. Everyone on the ship knew that theflamboyant Arms-Master, Saira Brighton, and the disciplined First OfficerRogers rubbed each other the wrong way. That both held unspoken respect for theother’s ability, and total loyalty to William Hunting Owl, made it a matter ofamusement rather than tension for Will. Most of the time anyway, he reflectedwryly.
“That undisciplined little piece of baggage!” Rogers saidquietly between clenched teeth. “I don’t care if she’s the bloody wizardMerlin, she was off station…”
“And she saved all of us,Mr. Rogers,” Will whisperedback firmly cutting him off. “I think that fact closes it.” Rogers broughthimself up short, and then nodded silently.
“Tell her she gets two special bottles tonight,” Will said toNaomi. And that I will join the landing party presently.”
“Are you still thinking of going down there?” Rogers frowned.Will shrugged.
“We have to satisfy the Company bean counters the wreck is theRaja Goh if we’re to get paid.” He grinned at Rogers. “Besides I recall acertain First Officer who was just complaining that we needed more money forHong Kong. The Company does pay well.”
“I am not sure that I shouldn’t view this new fiscalresponsibility with alarm,” he said dryly. He waved a hand “Never mind, you’reright. I suppose that I simply dislike being the East India Company’s errandboys.”
“Me too,” Will said seriously. “But we can wash our handsafterwards. We can’t fail in Hong Kong. We’re closer than ever, Lawrence. I hada Dream last night.”
Rogers pursed his lips and remained silent at that, hearingthe capitol ‘D’ in his captain’s voice. He’d seen a lot since joining withWilliam Hunting Owl that he couldn’t explain. William was one of the bestcommanders he’d ever served with, despite his familiarity with the crew and hisTribal ‘spirit ways’. Rogers didn’t care what the science boffins back homesaid about ‘magic’ being real; it was still mumbo-jumbo to him. Wishfulthinking most of the time that merely got you killed so far as he wasconcerned. Still, Will’s dreams had pointed the way for them in a manner thatRogers couldn’t explain. At least the Captain was discreet with it, unlikeBrighton, whom Rogers found more challenging.
“Yes. Well, it would be useful if that ‘friend’ of yourswould finish the package, so that we could move on to Hong Kong soon,” Rogerssaid to Will. “That way we could stop having to take these penny jobs just tokeep up appearances.” A fighting airship too long land docked for no apparentreason would draw questions that they had worked five long years to keep frombeing asked about their activities.
“He will Lawrence, he will,” Will reassured the older man. “Ibelieve that is the message from the dream.”
Will paused in talking as Michael McGuire raised his handsilently to get his attention. Will walked over to the aether wave station. TheWave operator held out a folded piece of paper. “Wave call for you Cap’n,” hesaid in his soft Irish brogue. “I have them on standby.”
Will unfolded the paper, and looked at it. It had a singleword on it, ‘Mouse’. Will nodded.
“Thank you Michael,” he said as quietly. “Route it to my daycabin if you please.”
He handed the paper off to Lawrence Rogers as he walked by.“Speak of the devil,” Will breathed at Rogers in passing with a grin. The FirstOfficer glanced down to read the note, then looked up again without comment.
“Mr. Rogers, you have the bridge,” Will continued in a loudervoice.
“Aye, Aye, Captain,” he acknowledged formally, “I have thebridge.” Rogers folded the paper into his closed fist.
“Oh, and Lawrence…” he called to his first officer, pausingat his day cabin door.
“Captain?” Rogers replied quizzically.
“You really should see about keeping the bridge tidier,” Willgestured at the broken cups and strewn papers on the deck. “I am surprised byall this.” This pronouncement was greeted by a few discreet chuckles.
“Aye Aye Captain,” Rogers replied in his best deadpan voice,knowing what his Captain was about. “I will be sure to schedule our nextnear-death evasion for just before the duty cleaning.”
“Good man!” Will nodded in solemn satisfaction, seeming toignore the smothered laughter. “I have every confidence that you will. Carryon.” The chuckles grew into guffaws from every corner of the bridge as theirtensions released.
Will entered his day cabin with a satisfied grin. As heclosed the door he heard Rogers call out gruffly, “All right you air devils, andyou’ve had your fun now! Mr. Walters…” The answering voices came sharp andsteady. Wills smile grew broader. He had remembered his father’s advice that aboost to morale was more valuable than an extra Tesla engine.
Crossing to his desk, he collapsed in the chair, pulling outhis pipe from a drawer. He took a moment to kindle it alight, blowing smoketowards the ceiling. He may not keep to all the ways of his forefathers, but hecould offer the tobacco smoke to the Spirits in thanks for their aid today. TheWind Dancer was built in such a way that he needn’t worry about a stray spark.After a moment of silent communion, he turned his attention to the call.Holding his pipe in one hand, he turned the switch that opened the repeater onhis desk.
“Ready Michael,” he said. There were the usual clicks and hissesas McGuire made the connections. Then a voice came from the small speaker grillon the desk, tinny but clear.
“Are you there, old friend?” The voice asked. Will still hada moments wonder at the thought of the voice of his ally coming to him livefrom thousands of miles away. He shook his head in bemusement. Time to stopwoolgathering and pay attention. Will picked up the microphone that laid nextto the speaker.
“I am, old friend.” Will blew more smoke towards the ceilingas he leaned back in his chair, crossing his feet on the desk before him. Hethumbed the microphone on again. “I’m afraid that you’ve waved at a rather badtime though. What may I do for you?”
“Ah, I will be brief then.” The voice replied. “I am afraidthat the package that we were discussing as your introduction to the ChineseSpider has been stolen.”
Will’s feet hit the deck as he sat upright. He removed thepipe from his mouth as he leaned towards the speaker grill.
“How? When? I thought that it wouldn’t even be ready untilweek’s end.”
“Just a few hours ago now,” the voice said. “I would ratherdiscuss the particulars in person. How quickly can you come to our meetingplace?”
“We have to finish our current business,” Will replied. Hecalculated quickly in his head. “I’m sorry, not sooner than fifty hours.” Damn,Will thought, they should never have taken this job. On the other hand, theyneeded the money too much to sit in Calcutta for weeks. Besides, he remindedhimself, it would have looked too suspicious to be idle for so long. Still, ifthey’d lost this chance to get in with the Asian underground, it would be ahard set−back.
“That is much better than I had hoped.” The relief in thevoice over the Aetherwave was audible. “I have begun my own inquires but I mustbe careful. You understand.” Will nodded, and then remembered that the othercouldn’t see him.
“I do,” he said into the mike. “Do you have any clues atall?”
“None,” the voice replied unhappily. “Also, you should knowthat a British Scholar, Lord Hadley, has been making inquiries in Hong Kongthat are coming too close to our Spider for comfort. The Spider is feeling veryuneasy. I have not told his people about the theft yet.”
Will cursed under his breath. That was all they needed, theSpider becoming even more leery of foreigners.
“Understood” he said unhappily. “Any other good news?”
“Well, it is not raining yet,” the voice replied.
“That’s good,” Will smiled in spite of himself at theirshared joke. “I’ll see you in, oh, call it, sixty hours at the latest. Wave ifyou learn anything else.” He paused, thinking if there was anything else hecould say. Not really. At least not over an open Aetherwave connection. McGuireassured him that it would be difficult for anyone to listen in on Aetherwavecalls. Will noted that the Irishman never said it was impossible.
“Owl clear,” he said finally, in the traditional Aetherwavecall ending.
“Mouse clear,” the voice replied. There was the hiss as theconnection closed.
“I’m done, Michael.” Will spoke into his microphone. “Nexttime ask before you listen in on one of my waves.”
“Uh, Aye Aye Sir,” came McGuire’s voice hesitantly from thespeaker grille. “I must have left the switch open by mistake.”
Will grinned to himself. That McGuire had been listening hadbeen purely a guess on his part. He knew about McGuire’s tapdancer past.Generally a crew member’s past didn’t matter, but old habits die hard.
“Understood,” Hunting Owl spoke. “While you are on the line,please have Naomi inform the Arms-Master that I will be there presently.Hunting Owl clear.”
“Bridge clear,” came the quick response, followed by a sharpclick. Will nodded to himself, satisfied. That should cure him from listeningin. It wasn’t that McGuire was trouble, he judged, so much as the man simplyneeded his knuckles rapped now and then.
Will swiveled in his chair to stare moodily out the porthole.The barren lands stared back at him. He pulled out the battered, gold pocketwatch automatically from his vest, then clutched it, unopened, in his hands fora moment as the emotion washed over him.
The watch, along with his old seven-barrel revolver, were theonly things Will had left of his father. He and Rogers had run out of leads tofind his killers. The Mouse’s idea to get them in with the Chinese Spider hadlooked like their best hope to discover more clues. Will drew on his pipe,remembering his dream. As he sat there, Will felt rather than heard the whisperof Owl wings over his head. The totem came when he would, but it was a clearsign to him that Owl was saying ‘Hey stupid! Hunt here!’
The scheme to infiltrate the Spider’s organization was stilltheir best hope, he was sure of it. The Spider’s organization smuggled thingsall across the Pacific Rim and farther, from the Kingdom of California to thedoors of London itself. First, though, they’d have to get the package back,which wouldn’t be easy. Well, he reflected, as the Old Man had always said, ‘ifit was easy someone else would have done it already’.
The land grew closer as he gazed out. Will had always felt athome in the sky. He took to it the way his father had to riding horses. He knewfrom the way she felt that theDancerwas coming down to hover over thewreck, even though he couldn’t see it from this side of the ship. He stirred inthe chair, pulling the pipe from his lips. Holding up the pipe to the sky, hesilently thanked Owl for pointing the way. There was still a lot to do. Heopened the watch one-handed, checking the time, then put it back in his pocket.Maybe, if they hurried the wreck survey, they could do turnaround before dark.He turned in the chair, placing the pipe back in its drawer, then stood up,mind still turning over what the Mouse had said in their conversation.
“Lord Hadley, huh,” he said to himself out loud, hitching uphis gun belt. He cursed again. Damned British aristocrats always made thingsworse.
Wind Dancer, Bengal, Free India
Will moved towards the main loadingbay that laid mid-ships of the lower body after he had put on the prototypebattle vest that the Savant he called the Mouse had given him.Hewas supposed to try out for a favor. If it really did work as the Mouse thoughtit would, then the favor would be Will’s. It was supposedly made out of some kindof cloth that hardened protectively when a bullet or other projectile hit it.The vest also had many little copper disks embedded in it linked by metallicstitching. Supposedly these could dissipate the charge of an electric weapon. Itwas far more comfortable than the rubber armor that was commonly worn by groundtroops. That armor was a defense against ‘sparkies’ as the hand-held versionsof the electric weapons were called, though it would not stop a coil cannon.
Neither would the vest, which didn’t bother Will that much.He figured that if he placed himself in front of a cannon he deserved what hegot. He heard the echoes of the men and women of the landing party long beforehe entered the big loading bay. The sound was the good natured catcalling andshouted comments of people about to enter what they knew could be a dangeroussituation. The ship herself would never land, there was no need for it. Her jobwould be to hover above, covering the landing party with her side guns andready to pull them up and out if it was needed. It wasn’t usual for Will to godown with the landing group, but he felt restless and in need of something todo after the ambush. He’d abruptly left Rogers in command on the bridge. He wassure he’d hear about it from the Briton officer later in private. However, asWill was fond of pointing out, they weren’t in one of the spit−and−polishair navies anymore.
He entered the bay to find his Arms-Master, Saira Brighton,finishing her quiet instructions to a young man. Both of them wore the skin−tightrubber armor of a modern fighter. The daughter of a British air merchant and aqueen of the Naga, the Serpent People, famed assassin−sorcerers of theIndian continent, Saira was as deadly as she was beautiful. Saira had joinedsoon after Will had claimed theDancer. Together with Lawrence Rogers,the three of them had made theWind Dancerthe best mercenary airshipthis side of the Pacific Rim. If a captain was a fighting ship’s brain, thenthe Arms-Master was its muscle.
Using an almost unholy combination of battle-skills andguile, Saira had earned more than merely the respect of the crew. She hadearned the trust of William Hunting Owl. A man who trusted no one after thedeath of his father, except perhaps for a British air sailor, Lawrence Rogers.Catching Saira’s eye, the dark−skinned woman hurried over to Will’s side.She looked him up and down.
“Think that magic vest will keep off the lightings?” Saira greetedhim dryly, in a soft voice that only he could hear. Will shrugged.
“I guess that we’ll find out someday.” He gestured at thegathered fighters in their rubber armor. “Isn’t dropping them in full kit alittle much for this heat?” It was Saira’s turn to shrug.
“I thought maybe that we were only going to be facing poxyair−pirates when the day started,” she said in her lilting voice. “Butnorthern nomads with guided rockets? I will be prepared for any others to havesparkies as well.” Electric guns were absolutely deadly to unprotected targets.Shooting a beam of invisible light that the deadly current traveled along, if youcould see your enemy, they was dead, no matter where the beam touched. Will hadseen to it that theDancerhad a number of the ‘rifle’ variety, with alonger range and longer charge than the ‘pistol’ type. The War had left asurplus of electric guns that had found their way into the hands of anyone whocould pay. No one was fast enough to dodge a sparkie though, except perhapsSaira, Will reflected musingly. No one knew what the assassin−witch wascapable of, like shooting down a ‘matic missile for instance.
“By the way,” Will continued in the same hushed tones, “goodjob with shooting down that ‘matic. We would have been done had that hit us.”Saira waved off his thanks.
“It was a warning from the spirits,” she said easily. “I justhappened to be at the gun station when I was needed.” She looked out over her ‘Tigers’,as she called them almost fondly, “Besides,” she went on as if Will hadn’tspoken, “a little sweat will do them all good.” She glanced up at the tallerCaptain. “Shall we begin?”
“Just a moment,” Will produced a wide leather bracer withknobs and a disk festooning it. It was another gift from the Mouse. “I do nothave a vest for you,” Will said, “but I do have this. I’ve had Michael set itfor the same code as bothDancer’sand mine.” He held up his left wristto show her the contraption. Saira slung her electric rifle and reached for thebracer.
“And this will work the same as an Aetherwave set?” she saidwonderingly. She strapped it to her forearm, then moved her arm experimentallyup and down. “It is very light,” she peered at the dials and knobs. “How doesit work?”
Will reached over, turning a switch. “That means it’s onnow,” he said. The same hand reached for a stud on his own bracer. “Michael canyou hear me?” He said. The Wave operator’s voice came from both disks at thesame time.
“You are coming in loud and clear Cap’n,” McGuire said. “Doesthe Arms-Master have hers on yet?” Will gestured for Saira to push the stud onhers. She did so, then spoke into the disk.
“I am wearing mine,” she said. Her voice coming from Willsforearm at the same time made her eyes go wide in wonder.
“I read you five-by-five Arms-Master,” McGuire responded.“Are you standing close by the Cap’n?” Saira pressed the stud again, “I am,”she replied.
“That’s likely why I’m getting some voice distortion then,”the Wave operator said. “In the future try not to both have the send buttonsdepressed at the same time.” Will grinned and depressed his to respond.
“Understood, Michael”, he replied. “We’ll talk again when weare on the ground. Owl out.”
“Wind Dancer out,” came the reply through both disks. Sairalooked from her wrist to his. She raised an eyebrow skeptically.
“This will take some getting used to,” she said. Will grinnedat her wider.
“Yes it will,” he said. “But think of all the uses for it ina landing. Hell, think of all the uses for it shipside!” Saira shook her head.
“I am not sure I want McGuire, or anyone else, listening inon my arm,” she replied. Will shrugged at this.
“McGuire tells me that it only works if you push the button,and that the Wave will only go to either another bracer or the main “DancerWave set,” he said.
“Very well,” she said resignedly, “I can see where it mightbe useful. I will wear it,” She looked up at the taller Cap’n. “Are we readythen?”
Will nodded. Saira turned to the room. Suddenly her voice cutthrough the Tigers’ conversations.
“All right you Tigers, listen up!” Her words echoed off thebulkheads even though she hadn’t raised her voice. Will wished he could do thattrick with his voice. Even with Saira’s coaching he still hadn’t gotten theknack of it. Everyone turned to look at her and Will attentively.
“The Captain here, is going down with us,” she continued. “Indeference to him we will be dropping to the landing area by flat rather than bystirrup and line.” This pronouncement earned some soft chuckles from thelisteners, while Will smiled beatifically at them. They all had seen Will’sskill at sliding down from the ship during a fight. It was rumored that being aGhost Warrior, Will had learned to ‘drop’ using only a rope with a stirrup withhis mother’s milk, which was not all that inaccurate.
“I want us all to keep to the standard formation,” Sairasaid. “No need to go off sight-seeing. I want everyone to stay in theirposition.” She pointed to the young man she had been talking to when Will hadcome in. “Ravin there will be working the picture taker. The young man inquestion hefted a black box about the size of his head.
“Tikku,” Saira called. A rubber clad woman nodded at hername. “I want you to stick close to Ravin if we run into any trouble.” Tikkusmiled at the man who managed to shyly smile back. “Questions?” Saira asked.One of the Greek sailors raised a hand.
“Loot?” he asked shortly. Saira turned to Will.
“Only what you can quickly carry,” he answered. “I want toinvestigate the crash, and get moving again. Look for the ship strong box,which the Company gets, not us.” He paused. “Survivors to be taken back if wefind any of course.” This earned an even louder round of chuckles from thehardened landing force. They knew the odds of anyone surviving an attack suchas theWind Dancerhad experienced.
“Do not take any unnecessary risks,” Will continued. Heraised his fist, and everyone else raised theirs in response. “And remember,everyone returns!” The last two words were repeated solemnly by all the Tigers.It was the Wind Dancer’s unofficial motto. While it might seem arcane tosomeone not schooled in the ways of the airdevils, it was as close as a prayeras they all came. The crew were all veterans of the air, and knew that for someships it was a standard answer to fly off and leave them on the ground.Sometimes even dump the wounded over the side to lighten the load. Not onWindDancer.
“Alright,” Saira ordered, gesturing to the flat hanging froma power winch over the loading hatch. “Everyone to their places, Captain andRavin in the center.” The Tigers climbed onto the lift, facing outward, leavingroom for Saira, Will, and Ravin at the center of the lift. Saira signaled the CargoMaster and the lift began its descent.
The heat hit them like a hammer as they descended. By thetime the lift touched down, even Will was soaked through with sweat. He hatedto think what the Tigers were going through in their rubber suits. Still whenthe lift touched the ground they moved off it in sharp order, weapons at theready. Two of the Tigers peeled off from the rest, scouting the area.
Will looked at the wreckage of the Raja Goh. Twisted sparscurved overhead, tattered bits of the air ship’s covering hung from them likeburnt skin. Everywhere debris was scattered across the ground. Will pointed toa section of hull.
“Ravin,” he ordered. “Catch that spot there. We want to showto the bean-counters that their ship was shot down.” Ravin dutifully raised thekinescope towards where Will pointed. The picture electronically etched itselfonto the thin metal spool within it. Ravin stood patiently while the scopevibrated in his hands. When it stopped, he moved the lens slightly to catch adifferent angle, then depressed the trigger again. He looked up at the cry ofone of the scouts.
“Over here!” came the scout’s voice. Saira and Will bothturned to follow the voice over the slight rise of the hill the wreck hadsettled on. Following the rest, Ravin stopped when he saw the bodies staked outon the ground. These crew had clearly survived the ambush only to be taken bythe savage tribesmen. Ravin swallowed hard, fighting his stomach at the stench.
“Get them on the reel, Ravin,” Will said quietly. “TheCompany will want it.” Saira was looking around sharply, rifle raised, as ifshe were hunting the perpetrators of the outrage.
As Ravin’s scope recorded the scene, a single musket shotrang out across the hills. Will was flung backwards into the dirt, as the restdived for cover. Saira stood over him and snarled wordlessly, her rifle comingup, a violet flash coming from the muzzle. Across the depression, the head ofthe attacker burst into flame, his rifle falling to the ground. Saira thendropped to crouch over her Captain. To her amazement, Will tried to rise to hiselbows.
“What are you doing?” she exclaimed. “I thought you weredead!” Her head snapped back up, searching for more attackers. Other Tigers hadrun crouched over to where the ambusher laid. They straightened up signalingthe all clear.
“It’s not that bad, Saira,” Will replied calmly, “the vestmust have caught it.” He held up a flattened bullet. “The damn thing has goneall stiff though and I can’t get up.” He held up a hand. The Arms-Master helpedhim up.
“Now I know that, I want one of those vests,” Saira quipped.“I want to dance naked through a landing too!” Will smiled at this.
“I will see to it that you get the next one,” Will promised.“Any idea who our attacker was?” Saira shrugged.
“He looked to be some cow-herder mudfoot nomad,” she replied.“Most likely one of the ones who did this.” She gestured towards the bodies ofthe tortured crew laid out on the ground. Will nodded grimly.
“Too bad,” he said. “I would have liked to get one of themalive for the Company.” Saira snorted, caressing her electric rifle.
“Better to simply give the mudfoot a bolt rather than makethem go through all the muck of one of your so-called civilized trials. Theywould only hang him anyway.”
“I cannot say I disagree,” Will responded. “Still, it mighthave meant a bonus for us if we could present a live one.” Saira raised herchin.
“Take anyone else alive if you can!” Saira called out. Sheturned back to Will with a nod.
“Should we not get you back above?” She asked. “You wereshot, you understand.” Will shook his head.
“Not before we see if that strongbox is in one piece,” hereplied laconically “You do want to get paid don’t you?”
Wind Dancer, Bengal Province
Free India States
“Very well,” Saira Brighton, Arms-Masterof Wind Dancer, pronounced, “That finishes our meeting.Good workout there everyone. I will expect you all at drill in the morning where we willwork more on guard formation. You may go about your business or…” she pulledthe cork from her own bottle again. “You may finish your drinks, if you haven’talready.” She took a healthy swig, feeling the rum burn comfortably on the waydown.
With differing versions of “Aye Aye,” some members of thelanding party stood up to leave, while others shifted on the benches to talk totheir neighbors. She watched her Tigers with satisfaction.
The landing drop had turned out to be uneventful. Save forthe shooting of the Captain and finding the bodies of theRaja Goh’screw that the herders had played with, she added to herself. They had found theship’s strongbox and hauled it back to the ship without further incident. Ithad all been in a day’s work and no one had been hurt, she thought in satisfaction.Briefly, she brushed the aura of her newest Tiger, Ravin, with her spiritsenses to find him more settled than before. It was his first exposure to theevils men will do one another, and he had naturally lost his stomach over thetortured bodies. He had then straightened up and carried on, as she knew hewould. He would do, she thought with approval.
“Mind if I sit for a moment?” Saira looked up at thequestion. She saw Michael McGuire, the ship’s chief wave operator, gesturingwith his mug at the empty bench space across from her. Saira thought it betterto hold her after−action meetings in the mess. Everyone could relax, havea drink, eat, or smoke as they liked, to unwind. She found that the meetingswent much better so, despite what Mr. Rogers pronounced.
She smiled at him, teeth gleaming in her dusky face.
“Please,” she pointed with her bottle. “We were finished withthe meeting. Are you not on duty though?”
McGuire nodded, sliding onto the bench.
“Cap’n is on another Aetherwave call with Calcutta. He toldme to take a long break.” He sipped from the mug and sighed. “Wu does make agood cup of tea once you get used to the spices and all. How went it downthere?”
She drank again from the small rum bottle, and then shruggedas she lowered it. “Well enough. We had no more trouble from the locals.Blowing up their rockets seems to have sent them running. So, the Cap‘n did notwant you listening in, did he? Is it about our next job?”
McGuire managed to look offended, his brogue thickening.
“I am shocked lass that ye would even think such a thing.Running the aether is a sacred trust, it is.”
Saira laughed. It was no secret that McGuire was, or hadbeen, a ‘wave tapdancer’. Tapdancers made their very illegal living bylistening in on supposedly private transactions on the Aetherwave, then sellingthe information to others. Both governments and companies used them covertly, allthe while casting doubts that such ‘tapping’ was even possible. She knew thatMcGuire was very intelligent; he had to be to do such things. She also knewthat he had no such scruples as he protested.
“Come now, Michael,” she purred, moving so that her open vestrevealed more of her unbound breasts. Saira had always disliked wearing moreclothes than she had too, and the ship’s temperature was still tolerable forher. “Surely you can tell a shipmate?”
McGuire looked at her for a moment and swallowed. He saw ashort, olive-skinned woman with an angular face and startling blue eyes crownedby close-cut ink black hair. Her body was all taut muscle and round curves. Hisown body stirred at her implicit invitation. Even though this was a game theyhad played before, he knew that she would freely share her favors with him ifhe ever said yes to one of her offers. He also knew she was the deadliestperson he had ever shared a table with, which dampened his ardor somewhat. Thenthere was the whole spooky mind-reading thing, even though she vowed that shedidn’t actually read minds. He had grown up on tales of mortals mixing it upwith the fairy folk. No good ever came to the mortals. Even though she wasn’treally a fairy, the principle was the same. Besides, he thought, there wasNaomi to consider. Even if Saira took such things lightly, Naomi certainlydidn’t. He gave a great regretful sigh and focused back on his tea.
“You can be a most vexing woman at times, you know,” he saidin mock exasperation.
“But it always gets your attention so nicely!” Saira laughed.What would Naomi say?”
“That once again you’ve proved that I’m not dead yet, as youwell know,” he replied grinning back. Shifting back to a serious expression, heleaned forward, lowering his voice. “All I know is that something has gone bad,and that we’re moving back to Calcutta as fast as we can. Cap’n has had Devicrank up the engines to full.”
Saira frowned at that, opening her mouth to say something,when a huge hairy paw of a hand landed on her shoulder. Restraining herselffrom responding by immediately cutting off the offending hand, she looked up tosee a swaying giant, leering at her with a mug in his other hand.
“You’re the one they call Saira, the darkie sorceress aren’tya? They tell me that you like to do it as part of your spells.” The giantslurred at her in accented English, while leering.
“Look here man…” McGuire began hotly. Saira held up a hand,stopping McGuire.
“That is all right Michael; our friend is clearly new here.”She turned on the bench towards the drunken giant. She saw two of the riggercrew stagger drunkenly into the mess. They stopped with dismay as they saw whattheir new friend was doing.
“Yes, I am called Saira,” she replied sweetly. “Yes I am asorceress and yes, I ‘do it,’ as you say, for both the spirits and my Goddess.”McGuire’s face paled where he sat across from her. He knew that tone in hervoice. “What is your name, tall and manly,” Saira cooed.
“Olaf Anderson,” the giant said with a grin, his speechslurred with drink. “I wan’ you ta know that I aint afraid of no darkiespirits.” He squeezed her shoulder harder. “So let’s go do it then.”
“Why that is a most kind offer, Olaf Anderson,” she repliedcoolly. “I think that you should look down though.”
Puzzled, the man blearily looked down to see a very largeblade pointed at his crotch. He stared in astonishment, as he’d not seen herdraw the knife. He froze as the blade touched his pants.
“Now listen carefully, Olaf Anderson,” Saira speared his gazewith her eyes, ensnaring his soul in their entangled gazes. She carefullyignited a nameless terror deep within him that froze his muscles, whilecontinuing to speak. “You signed Articles when you were hired on this ship. Oneof them stated that you not push yourself on a shipmate unwilling, remember?You may nod your head,” she ordered. Olaf found that he could no longer movehis lips to reply to this nightmare in front of him. In fact, he couldn’t movea single muscle in his body of his own will. He silently began gibbering insideas his head moved up and down of its own accord.
“I could gut you right now, and not a soul here would stopme,” she stated sweetly. “I suspect, however, that you fell in with bad company.”She glanced over at the two riggers who were rooted to the spot in horror. “Isthat right? You may nod your head again.”
Olaf nodded again, the whites of his eyes showing. Sairanodded in mock sympathy.
“As I thought,” she said calmly. “Now remember Olaf Anderson,the women of this ship, and even some of the men, are much fiercer than I, andnot as understanding.” She shook her head as the razor edge parted the cloth ofhis pants with ease. Olaf dropped his mug. “Can you remember that Olaf?” Henodded again.
“Good,” Saira smiled up at him again. “Now remove your handfrom my shoulder, slowly, and say you are sorry for interrupting.”
His hand did so, otherwise his body would not move. Thenwetting dry lips, Olaf mumbled what sounded like an apology.
“Good boy!” Saira replied with a grin. “You can go sleep itoff now.” She released her hold on his spirit, while moving the knife away.Olaf’s eyes rolled up into his head as he collapsed on the floor with a thud.There were hoots and laughter from the other patrons in the mess as the giantfainted away.
“You two,” she ordered, pointing her knife at the tworiggers. “Take him back to his berth.” The two came forward each taking one ofthe giant’s arms. They hauled him up between them. “Arms-Master…” one of thembegan.
“Do not even try,” she said coldly. Saira made a cuttingmotion with her forearm-long knife. “I know what has happened here. Be gratefulI do not turn my eye onyou. Now git,” she waved the knife. ‘Git’ wasone of Cap’n Wills’ expressions which she approved of completely. Nothing inEnglish quite said the meaning so well. The two hapless men swiftly took theirburden away. Entertainment over, the watchers in the mess returned to theirprevious conversations. Saira made the knife disappear and picked up her bottleagain.
“My fault,” she said ruefully to McGuire. “I should have beenhere to meet the new hires in Calcutta.”
“So you do not think friend Anderson will be with us long?”McGuire knew that she had been off ship for several days, but didn’t ask whereshe had been. You didn’t pry into what others did in their off-time. If shewanted to say, she would have.
“Oh, his spirit is not truly bad,” she replied. “He was fullof drink and stories from the riggers. We will have to see what he does withwhat has happened to him when he wakes.”
“Well, I be afraid that you have a true challenge coming yourway,” Michael said looked over her shoulder, “one named ‘Rogers’.” He stood up,draining his mug. “I was on the bridge when he learned of your shooting feat,and he was mad as a wet chicken.”
“Mr. McGuire,” Rogers said crisply, coming to stand at thetable. In his hands were two bottles. “I believe that your presence will berequired on the bridge shortly.”
“Aye Aye, Mr. Rogers, I was just on my way.” McGuire gaveSaira a look as if to say ‘good luck’ and hurried off.
“Arms-Master Brighton,” he began, and then stood thereawkwardly with the two bottles.
“Mr. Rogers,” Saira said coolly. She raised an eyebrow at thebottles. “Two? I know it has been a difficult day but I think that you wouldwant to make a better example to the crew. Two fisted drinking so lacksdiscipline.”
“Damnation Mr. Brighton,” he hissed between clenched teeth.“Can we at least do this with a modicum of decorum?”
“But you have assured me repeatedly that I have no decorum,”she stated. “And why do you persist in this custom of calling me a ‘mister’? Iknow that it is done in the British Air Navy, but as you can see we are not inthe BAN.” She gestured around the room. It was watch change and rapidly fillingwith a sea of profane airdevils of both sexes, all wearing a rat bag of clothesthat in no way would ever be mistaken for a uniform.
“Nor,” she continued, casually opening her vest wide toexpose her breasts, “could anyone mistake me for a ‘mister’, except perhapsyou.”
“We have discussed this at great length,” Rogers repliedfrostily. “If female veterans of the War can accept proper shipboard courtesy,so can you. Not that you know anything about proper discipline; if you did youwould not have been off station today!”
“If I had not thedisciplineto listen to the spiritstoday, we would not be here!” She snapped back at him. “I was checking the sideguns when I justknew. She shrugged, “It is hard to explain to someonelike you. I ordered the port open and shot it down myself.”
“Even when the ship was set to receive coil blasts!” Rogershissed. “You know what could have happened if you were wrong!”
“I know what would have happened if I had not done so.” Sairalooked at him with a basilisk gaze
“That was luck, blind luck!” Rogers retorted, forgetting thesurrounding mess crew. “Do not think that yourhocus pocusis an excusefor not taking your duties seriously.” Saira straightened in her chair, thesound a hissing snake makes exploding from between her teeth.
“I apologize for that last,” Rogers said, taking a hold ofhimself in an attempt to keep his dignity, as he remembered where they were. “The fact remains that your shooting did save the ship today, and you dodeserve the recognition you’re about to receive.”
“I do not want it,” Saira voiced coldly. “Who would wish forfake ass-kissing?”
“You will accept it,” Rogers replied equally as coldly.“First of all, because it is your duty as a ships’ officer. Second, because itis the Captains’ order.” He continued stiffly, “I suspect that the Captainwished for me to use this as an opportunity to mend bridges between us. Ibelieve I have failed at that. Now, may we carry out the Captains wishes withsomething like grace?”
Saira nodded reluctantly, unaccustomed to Rogers actuallyapologizing for his pig headedness.
“With the Captains compliments,” Rogers placed a bottle infront of her. “He apologizes for not being able to present it in person. Ship’sbusiness.” Saira noticed that the bottle was Russian vodka, one of herfavorites. He placed the second bottle next to it. “Please accept this from meas well, for a job well done.” He held out his hand. Saira reluctantly took it.Rogers stepped back.
“I must return to the bridge now, Arms-Master.” He noddedbriskly, and turned to go. Saira held up a hand.
“Wait,” she said. “Will you have a drink with me?”
“Thank you, but I am still on duty,” Rogers smiled his tightsmile. He nodded shortly to her. “Enjoy.”
It was only after he had left that Saira looked at the secondbottle’s label. It was a pre-war Scotch. She knew from her merchant days thebottle was worth more than her ship−share for the entire mission. Sheshook her head in wonder. The English were all insane.
Nightwatch, Bridge, Wind Dancer
Rogers looked out into the darkness. He tended to visit thebridge in the middle of the night when sleep eluded him, which was often. Thehabit caused unspoken annoyance to the night watch who he knew listened on thebroadwave to that awful caterwauling they called music when he wasn’t present.He saw no reason to ban the activity altogether, they were mercenaries, notBritish Navy after all. If his nearly forty years in the BAN had taught himanything, it was never give an order you know won’t be obeyed. That had givenhim what his mentors would have called a ‘command challenge’ with this crewmore than once.
Like most airships at night,Wind Dancerhad put onher running lights, climbing high enough to not run into anything in the dark.Rogers was pleased with the ship’s progress. They had picked up a good tailwind. They were speeding along at nearly fifty miles an hour, which was veryfast indeed. They might even make Calcutta within the Captain’s desired time atthis rate.
Staring into the darkness outside, Rogers mused that beingsecond in command of a mercenary airship was hardly where he expected to be inhis fifties. But then so much had changed since he was a young man. He had onlyjust obtained his commission in the wet navy, as they now called it, as a veryjunior officer aboard HMSReliantwhen the Invaders had attacked.
He doubted that anyone who had lived through those dark yearswould ever forget them. The incredible devastation, the hordes of refugeesfleeing a living nightmare, as nothing seemed to stand in the way of themonsters slaughtering the whole human race. That is, until Tesla and the otherscience boffins had developed the huge city-covering Shields that were proofagainst the aliens’ attacks. Her Majesty’s Government had disseminated theknowledge of making them around the world to anyone still fighting. With thatbreathing room, an Alliance of the great nations had formed, building airshipsand weapons to take the fight to the enemy. Rogers had joined the Alliance airservice on the first call for volunteers.
The following years had seen him fighting all around theworld, serving with men and women from every race and nation, so desperate werethe times that anyone who could fight was welcomed into the service. The higherups had taken note of his ease with different people, so he became a liaisonofficer helping to integrate the airships built by other nations into theAlliance Expeditionary Force. He still had nightmares of those swarms of hastilybuilt airships mobbing one of the great spider-like war machines, stinging itto death. Many people had died in those battles, but so had the Invaders, allof them in the end.
After the War, now Commander Lawrence Rogers left the AEF tojoin the newly forming British Air Navy where he received a commission of hisown and an air command. He had chosen well. As the years passed with no furtherinvasion, the AEF had dwindled while the various nations built up their ownforces, each eying the other like cats at a single mouse hole. It seemed thathumanity knew no end of stupidity, he thought sourly. Rogers had never climbedhigher than Captain in the BAN. He had no stomach for politics and was contentcommanding the deck of his own ship. He had figured to stay on until death orretirement which ever came first. Perhaps by then, he would have saved the capitalneeded to reclaim his family’s farm in Yorkshire from the Smoke Blight. Hisparents would have liked that, he always thought. But it was not to be.
His last command, HMSDefender,had been patrollingthe air lanes off the Siam coast. It had been the middle of the night, much asnow, when he’d been called to the bridge.
A distress wave had come in from a British merchant ship.They claimed to be under attack by coil−cannon firing raiders. Theypleaded for aid from any ship that could reach them. Then the connection hadbroken off. If they were under attack Rogers knew, a coil cannon strike hadlikely destroyed their electronics as well as their engines. Merchantmen tendednot to shield their systems as fighting ships did. A single coil strike wouldnot significantly damage an ungrounded airship. It would however make a meltedslag out of anything electrical on board that was not shielded, not to mentionthe very real danger of starting fires. It was a miracle that they had gotten awave off at all. Rogers had to act fast, if they were to save her.
They had been close to the reported position of the ship, soCaptain Rogers had orderedDefenderto respond with all speed. As theyapproached, a flash like lightening split the night ahead of them, the coilstrike wreathing an unmoving merchant ship in St. Elmo’s fire. Rogers cursedunder his breath. Even if the ship’s hull remained unbreached, the crew couldsoon be cooked alive from the intense energy discharges.
He tried to peer through the night, the spot lightspractically useless at this distance. The raider was running in total darkness,with no lights and no reflections off the hull. It was a totally black ship.Rogers had a moment of consternation at that revelation.
How was he supposed to fight an enemy he couldn’t evensee?Night battles were not done for that very reason. He then realized in horrorthat they could seehim.He’d come in with his spots and running lightsblazing like a fool. He hastily gave the order to kill the lights just as thefirst coil strike shook the ship. Rogers looked out in despair as multipleflashes of gunpowder cannons lit the night sky directly in front of him. He’dblundered straight into their broadside, there was no time to even considermaneuver. He had one awful moment to know his ship was doomed. Then the firstshell had exploded against the bridge, and he knew no more.
When he had come to, it was dawn. TheDefenderhadfloated powerless out over the ocean, a slowly sinking wreck. Of his crew oftwo hundred, only a dozen had survived. By sheer luck, they had found a Siamesewet ocean ship that took them aboard just before theDefendersank intothe waves.
The Admiralty courts-martial had not been interested inhearing about night raiding black airships; the very assertion of it offendedtheir sense of order. They quickly found him guilty of negligence. However in“deference to his War record,” they had been merciful and merely cashiered himfrom the service instead of hanging him.
It had been in a hellhole in Bombay, India, where WilliamHunting Owl had found him, a disgraced outcaste trying to drink himself into anearly grave. Will had approached Rogers with the zeal of a missionary. TheTribesman already believed in the black airships.
One had attacked the merchant airship that had been William’shome since the end of the War. Hunting Owl had not been aboard, but his fatherhad been, as both captain and owner like many a war veteran. Will’s last wordswith his father had been over a Farley Aetherwave connection while the ship wasbeing destroyed. His father told him about the black airship.
Will had managed to infuse Rogers with his fire for justiceand revenge, and Rogers agreed to join forces with him. At the time, Rogers hadknownwhat they were attempting was impossible. ‘Impossible’ however,was a word not in William Hunting Owl’s vocabulary. Rogers was franklyastonished at the progress they had made, however slowly, these last five yearsin tracking their shadowy quarry.
In the course of their early adventures, they had come intopossession of theWind Dancer. Hunting Owl had the idea that running amercenary airship would give them not only mobility, but a plausible reason tohaunt the less reputable fringes of the still growing airdevil society in theirhunt. None of the crew that signed aboard knew what Will and Rogers real huntwas.
Hunting Owl was by far a better leader and fighter thanRogers would ever be. There was no shame in admitting that, the older man felt.While Rogers had decades of experience, Will had practically grown up onairships. He had also been a warrior with the fearsomeGhost Dancerswhoafter the War had defeatedbothof the American governments by force ofarms. It was only natural to both of them that William be Captain of theWindDancer. Besides, if he was honest, Rogers wasn’t sure that he ever wanted acommand again after that night off Siam.
The Captain was God aboard ship, Rogers reflected. He eitherput spine in his crew or he did not. William did. Even if the crew did not knowthe particulars, they could sense that William Hunting Owl had an air of noblepurpose. That aura rubbed off on those around him. They held their heads uphigher because of it. Hell, even Rogers had been changed by it. It didn’tmatter that Will was also the wiliest, most dirty fighting rogue Rogers hadever met. Far from it. The crew respected him for his cunning as much as forhis sense of honor. If Will Hunting Owl gave you his word, you could be surethat he would give his life to keep it.
Will also did his best to bring his crew back alive, rich, orboth if possible. Mostly he succeeded. That mattered to the misfits and brokenveterans who signed to fly on a private fighting ship. They may hold theirlives cheap, but Will didn’t, and so they began not to as well. Rogers knew hecouldn’t give the crew half that muchespirit.
No, Rogers thought, he was content to be God’s Right Hand, asevery good First Officer was. Besides, someone had to turn this lot of sorryairdevils into something resembling a fighting ship, whichRogerscoulddo. Because what had started as a mere disguise, had become fact, they were amercenary airship now. A damned good one to Rogers mind, but the real thing tobe sure. They had a reputation as honest, if deadly fighters. Certainly theywere more disciplined than most of the rabble in the air who sold their guns,which reminded him.
“Mr. Hattori,” he snapped out without turning. “I believe thatyou should finish that log entrybeforethe watch changes, don’t you?”He asked archly. The younger man gulped and wrote more furiously, certain thatthe old man had eyes in the back of his head. Rogers hid a smile at using theold trick. In fact, Rogers had seen that he had left the log open when he hadentered the bridge.
Perhaps someday they would catch their prey, Rogers thought,and the nightmares would stop. Perhaps then he wouldn’t need rum to sleep atnight. Perhaps. Until that day, God’s Right Hand would keep a strong grip. Herecalled the earlier debacle with Brighton. As strong as he could manage at anyrate, he thought wryly.
Warehouse District, Bombay, India
Saira kept watching the dilapidated building while listeningto Cap’n Will and Jarro. For days they had followed the twisted trail of athief that had led them all the way to Bombay, capitol of British India. Thenext step on the trail lay in the old warehouse she now watched.
Saira hated British India, even though she was born here. Forone thing, it was far too close to her mother. She had adopted a disguise ofsorts, binding her breasts to change her outline, pads in her boots to shifther walk, a leather flight cap, straps dangling loose beneath her chin. She wasstill clearly a woman airdevil, but to a casual observer she hoped she wouldnot appear to be Saira Brighton. Her teachers had always stressed that simpledisguise was best; especially if the hunters thought they knew their quarry.She hoped they were right. She also hoped that she did not encounter any ofthose teachers who were still living while she was in Bombay.
If Cap’n Will had noticed the changes, he hadn’t remarked onthem. She had told him of her family difficulties when first she joined theship. She thought it only fair he know that her mother was high priestess ofthe most feared assassins and sorcerers in India, and that mother was notpleased with her. His only comment had been that everyone had family troublesof some kind. His rule was that signing on toDancerwas a fresh start,and the past was past. If that past did come calling, he had said in hisstrange drawl, you won’t have to face it alone. She read his heart while hespoke, she could not be lied to when she used her power, though that sort ofcloseness was difficult and tiring for her. She knew with certainty that hespoke truth. To her astonishment, she discovered that she had found somethingonWind Dancershe did not know she was looking for. She had found ahome and a family.
Jarro had been arguing with the Cap’n ever since the nextinformant’s name had been whispered to them in a smoky den. This worried her asshe had never seen the helmsman argue with anyone. Behind his fierce facialtattoos, Jarro was usually very calm and agreeable. Despite his coming fromsome island she had never heard of, Saira found his spirit very much like thatof one of her own people, calm as a still pool, yet fierce as a tiger. If hehad not been so important at the helm, she would have gladly added him to theTiger landing crew. It had been the Captains idea that he come along today, andit had been a good one. The three of them had spent endless time talking tovarious disreputable sorts, and the giant’s towering presence had been anunspoken persuasion that loosened tongues more quickly. Then the name ‘Smeadly’had been spoken by an old one eyed woman in a hemp shop. The name clearly meantsomething to the two of them. She had watched Jarro’s anger build, the redenergy swirling tight around his aura as they crossed the city.
“This is a very bad idea, Cap’n,” Jarro’s face was that of ademon, the black tattoo whorls twisting as he spoke. “That man is pure deceit.Even if he does tell anything it will likely be false. Do you not remember whathappened the last time we dealt with him?”
“I remember, Jarro,” Will replied calmly. ‘That was threeyears ago. You’ve heard what people have been saying as well as I have. Ifanyone knows where that package is, it’ll be Smeadly. I can deal with himfine.”
“At least let me kill him then,” Jarro asked again for thefourth time since the name Smeadly had come up.
“No Jarro,” Will replied again in that same calm voice. “Ifwe kill him, and he does keep something back we won’t then be able to ask himagain. I do know how you feel, but we do this the soft way.”
“So who is this Smeadly, and why do we want to kill him atall?” Saira finally entered the discussion, while keeping her eyes on thewarehouse.
“Smeadly was a British gang leader being transported toAustralia that we rescued from a ship wreck,” Will explained. “He caused us amite bit of trouble in Sydney Port. All this was before you joined us.”
“He nearly got the Cap’n killed, and all of us branded aspirates,” Jarro growled.
“That was then Jarro,” Will reminded him. “Besides, I have anidea how to get his eager cooperation.”
“What is that?” The Maori asked suspiciously.
“Saira,” Will asked, turning to face her. “How would you liketo play at being a sadistic, bloodthirsty, Naga assassin interrogator?”
“I like this plan already,” Saira grinned broadly. “Can Iactually hurt him?” A little bloodshed would distract her from worrying aboutmother so much she thought to herself.
“Well, not too much,” Will grinned back at her. He pursed hislips in thought, “I will say that if he hurts a little I won’t mind. Follow mylead though.”
“Of course,” she nodded sharply. “What if there isresistance by others?”
“We decide it as we go,” Will said. “I’d prefer not to killanyone if we can. Remember we’re just after information here. Having said that,do what seems needed, but keep Smeadly alive. We all clear on that?” He lookedat Jarro as he spoke. She readily agreed, and after a moment’s hesitation, sodid Jarro, if more reluctantly.
“Alright,” Will nodded decisively. “Check your tools. We willgo in the front.”
They were not allowed by local law to carry guns in Bombay,but that did not mean they were unarmed. British India had outlawed guns to‘Coloreds’, which description all three of them fit in the authorities’ eyes.It did not matter if they were Crown subjects or visitors, the ‘wog’ could notbe trusted with guns after the Rebellion of ’85; the colonial boot heel wasunyielding. Another reason Saira hated it here. She had seen too many goodpeople bow and scrape, had seen too many injustices growing up in BritishIndia.
Edged weapons, however, were allowed to anyone. She carriedher long Sheffield knives openly, as did the Captain his Bowie knife. Sairaalso carried an electric pistol hidden beneath her clothes.
One of the advances of New Science, Saira approved ofelectric weapons. An electric charge ‘rode’ between two focused beams ofinvisible light to the target. A handgun held five lethal shots or twice thatmany knock downs, determined by a switch under her thumb. Saira rarely used theknock-down setting, it was too unreliable to her mind.
‘Sparkies’, as they were also called, did have theirproblems. They couldn’t be reloaded on the run. They had to be recharged froman electric source which meant a big generator. They could also be stymied byrubber armor, and were cranky to maintain. Given all that though, she thoughtthey were excellent ranged weapons, as even a near hit would be fatal. The‘bolts’ traveled at such speeds that if you could see the target you hit it.Standing in the shadow of the building, she checked that her charge was stillup and the two guide lenses clean before returning it to the small of her back.
The Cap’n, she knew, preferred his revolving handgun. Shewatched as he pulled it smoothly from the holster under his jacket. He snappedopen the breach, checking that all seven barrels were loaded and turningsmoothly, then shut it with a snap, replacing it under his arm. The .50 Smithwas not to her taste, too loud and smelly, but she had to admit he was verygood with it.
Jarro mostly preferred to use his fists when he could. He wasotherwise armed with a long blade mounted on a short stick slung over his back.Saira had seen him practice; the odd weapon was deceptively fast in his hands.Professionally, she approved.
“All done,” Will announced with a smile. “Let’s go palaver.”
The three of them crossed the empty street as the sun movedtowards the horizon. Will paused at a door that had a brass sign sayingPiccadillyImport and Export Ltd.on it. Silently he checked one more time that Sairaand Jarro were ready. At their nods, he opened the door.
Rogash looked up at the three who had entered from the frontdoor and frowned. His boss often dealt with air scum, which these clearly wereby their goggles and dress, but rarely before dark. The short woman on theright with the big knives was clearly a half−caste with her blue eyes. Hedidn’t recognize where the giant covered in tattoos was from, but it was alarge world. The tall man in the center looked like a tribesman from theAmericas. He frowned to himself. He couldn’t remember the boss saying anythingabout an Injun Tribey. Rogash pressed the button under the counter to summonthe guards.
“I am afraid that we are just closing for the day, nobles,”Rogash said hurriedly. “If you would return in the morning, we can better serveyou,” The Tribey smiled at him, walking straight up to the counter while theother ones stayed back, flanking him.
“That’s alright,” he said, teeth gleaming in a mahogany face.“We just want to talk to Smeadly,” he hooked his thumbs in his belt and grinneddisarmingly. “Only for a moment, we promise.” Rogash franticly pressed thebutton again. No one good ever asked for the boss by name.
“I am sorry but you are mistaken,” Rogash said hurriedly.“There is no one here by that name. We are closing for the day now. You mustleave. Now.” Rogash urged. The two bodyguards, muscled and naked to the waist,finally came from behind the curtain. They moved around the counter, strokinglong clubs in their hands.
“Truly, we just want to talk to him, that’s all. No trouble.”The tall man said unmoving.
Rogash slowly moved his hand under the counter towards thescatter gun that was clipped there. Before he could touch the handle, he wasstaring at the barrels of the man’s gun. Rogash blinked, the barrels lookedvery large, and his hand froze where it was. The short woman moved like a blur,one guard suddenly found her two blades crossed at the base of his neck, theedges not quite cutting. The guard saw Kali the Devourer reflected in her eyes.He dropped his club quickly, going very still.
The man with the fearsome tattoos growled in a terrifyinggrimace, causing the other guard to back away, holding his club uncertainly.
Rogash blinked again, staring at the circle of the revolverbarrels before him. It had all happened so fast! Paan and Josh, the two guards,were useless he thought in growing despair. He’d always known they were, forall their big talk and muscles! He felt himself sweating. Whoever these peoplewere, they were not the boss’s usual kind of trouble. He knew that they weregoing to kill him. In his panic, he almost missed the Tribey speaking to himagain.
“If you very slowly move your hand away from that gun, Ithink that you and your friends here can go home. We truly are here just totalk, but it’s your choice.” Rogash focused on the words. They could leave?Slowly he moved his hands up in the air.
“Good man!” The Tribey grinned at him, gun steady on hisface. “Now,” he said to Rogash, “still going nice and slow, walk to the doorand git. I doubt that Smeadly will be too happy with you all, so if you evercome back is up to you. But do not return tonight or we will not be so nice!Understand?”
Rogash nodded. He didn’t know what ‘git’ meant, but themeaning was clear. And the man was right. The boss did not forgive. Perhapsleaving Bombay would be wise.
As the last man fled out the door, Will looked at hiscompanions, his smile going wry. “Well, that was easy enough. Now comes thehard part. Smeadly will have some sort of bolt hole for sure. Watch for morepeople, and traps.” He moved quickly around the counter and through thecurtain, only to be met by a heavy door with a steel lock.
In the Aetherwave serials, the brave hero shoots out thelock, which Will knew was a good way to get hit by your own bullet. Instead heaimed above the lock and fired. He quickly did the same below it, then kickedout hard. The splintered wood around the lock gave way when the door crashedopen. He went in fast, Saira, electronic pistol now in hand, followed to hisright, Jarro to his left.
Will’s eyes swept the room, gun first. The room was done upin what he thought of as cheap flash. The walls were lavender and green stripedmetallic foil. In one corner, sat an over−sized Aetherwave set next to abright blue divan. A large desk sat more or less in the middle of the room. Theair reeked of cheap hemp and cigars.
A short thin man with ginger hair was struggling with whatlooked to be a hidden door behind a bookcase. Smeadly, Will thought insatisfaction. He fired high, the round raining flakes of wallpaper and plasterdown on Smeadly’s head. The man flinched and then froze, slowly raising hishands.
“Turn around real slowly Smeadly. I will shoot youotherwise.” Will watched carefully as the other man turned. Smeadly may becoward and a con man, but Will knew the ganger was serious deadly whencornered.
Smeadly smiled, showing empty hands and a row of sharpenedmetal teeth, the badge of the London street gangs. He was better dressed thanwhen Will had last seen him. The quality of the bright orange tartan pants, andemerald green coat over a gold vest spoke of money. Will noted that Smeadlydidn’t seem surprised to see him.
“Well now, this is a pleasant surprise!” Smeadly saidheartily, “Captain William Hunting Owl! I’d heard that you were mucking aboutin these parts, but I’ve been far too busy to pay my respects.” He cocked hishead to one side, “Did you kill my men?”
“No, but they have left for the day,” Will replied, keepingthe gun on him. “All I want is a few moments of your time, Smeadly, just a littletalk.”
“Right then,” Smeadly lowered his arms, and shot his cuffs.“Love to catch up, but I’ve an appointment you see. I’m a man of means nowWilly, important people to see and all that.” The little ganger flashed hissharp steel teeth in a short grin. “Mayhap we can talk another time. I’ll sendyou a Farley crystal. Don’t worry about the door.” He slowly walked towards thebroken door, ignoring the pointed guns.
“You can stop right there, Smeadly,” Will called out. “I’veno mind for your games. Keep your hands were I can see them.” Smeadly stoppedagain with a huge sigh, moving his arms out from his body. “Jarro,” Willordered, “the chair.”
Jarro pulled the chair out from behind the desk, pushing ittowards the middle of the floor. Will noticed that it was one of the new kindthat rolled on wheels.
“Smeadly, sit,” Will ordered. Smeadly sidled over to thechair still keeping his hands away from his sides.
“Now, Willy,” Smeadly said in aggrieved tones, “You’re notstill having hard feelings over that Sydney business are you? It was amisunderstanding is all. Why I’d never hurt you, we’re practically brothers weis, sharing the same Christian name and all. That’s it, brothers! Besides itall came out on the up and up in the end right?” Jarro growled deep in histhroat.
“Oh, hullo Jarro,” Smeadly said to him as he sat down. “Stillwith him eh? You know you actually look uglier than I remembered. Life must begood to you.” Jarro growled again.
“Jarro,” Will said quietly, “go watch the front.”
“Do not trust him, Cap’n!” Jarro said glancing at Will. Heturned to face Smeadly, “If you play us false again,” Jarro rumbled darkly, “Iwill hunt you down and kill you, I swear it.” He pulled his blade from over hisshoulder with a meaningful look.
“Good to see you too, Jarro,” Smeadly said pleasantly.
“Jarro,” Will ordered again, “now.” He kept his own gun stillaimed at Smeadly's head. As Jarro left, Saira moved to cover more of the room.
“Well, hallo there pretty,” the smuggler leered. “Wot’s yourname then? Willy, you’ve definitely improved in your taste in companions, Imust say.”
“We’ll get to her, Smeadly,” Will said agreeably. He croucheddown at eye level with the smuggler, while staying out of his reach. “To bevery clear, this is not about Sydney. Word says that you’re now the man whoknows everything about how certain commodities move around and out of thiscity.”
Smeadly shrugged, and puffed up his chest.
“Told you I’m a man of means these days, Willy. I knowspeople it’s true.” He stared hard at Will, all warmth gone from his voice, “athing you should keep in mind.” He flashed his steel teeth again.
“Good,” Will replied heartily. “Then this should be easy foran important man like you. A very expensive piece of gadgetry was stolen fromShavian Laboratories in Calcutta about two weeks ago. Who did it, where is itnow?” Will watched Smeadly's face, and knew he’d struck gold. “Give me thatand we’re out of your life, easy as pie.” The silence stretched out, as the twomen eyed each other. Finally, Smeadly spoke.
“I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you on that subject,Willy. Some questions you shouldn’t be asking, if you follow me. And please,”he said, voice harsh with contempt, “Don’t be trying any stupid threats. Weboth know you don’t ‘ave the stones to force me. Kill me yeah, but I’m like asdead anyway if I give that up to you.” He bared his teeth again.
“Well, I’m right sorry to hear that, Smeadly.” Will said in asorrowful tone. “Right sorry,” he nodded at Saira. Saira gave the smuggler a veryevil grin. She holstered her gun and pulled one of her knives. “You asked aboutmy friend here,” he continued, “you see, she’s a Naga. You have heard of themhaven’t you?”
Smeadly looked at Saira as if for the first time. Everyone inIndia had heard whispers about the Naga, the sorcerous Serpent People whokilled in the dark. It was rumored that even the Thuggee of Kali gave the Nagaa respectful distance. Smeadly smirked at her.
“This little flower a fearsome Naga?” he asked derisively.“You must be slipping Willy to think you could pull that one. He laughed andthen the laugh died as Saira caught Smeadly’s gaze. Will saw the man’s Adamsapple work. He could tell Saira was working her magic on him. He sat back onhis haunches to watch silently.
Saira sauntered towards Smeadly, running a thumb lasciviouslyalong the edge of her knife. Smeadly's eyes grew rounder the closer she came.Will was reminded of seeing a snake catch a rodent, the rat frozen in place asthe serpent came closer.
Saira straddled Smeadly’s legs pinning him in the chair. Shecarefully ran the knife down his cheek, a thin trickle of blood following whereit passed.
“I wonder if those teeth come out easily,” she breathed athim.
“Oh God, Willy, I can’t tell you, man! I can’t,” Smeadlyerupted in terror, his eyes never leaving Saira’s gaze. “Can you not understandthat it would be the death of us all, you stupid Indian?” Saira stopped hisshouting by placing her blade against his lips.
“First, you should know that the Cap’n is a tribesman fromthe Americas, an honorable warrior,” she breathed. “Iam Indian, as I amfromIndia. You,” she moved the knife towards his eye, “are apieceof offal whose soul I will shrive with the rites of pain, and off up to theDark Ones in apology for your stain on the soil of my land.”
Will thought she might be overdoing it; he doubted Smeadlyhad a soul, let alone thought much of it. But Smeadly screamed like the damned,never taking his eyes off hers. “No Willy, please! Don’t let her do it!” Thelittle ganger started crying. “Don’t let her do it!” He broke down sobbing.
Will hated seeing anyone so undone, even a weasel likeSmeadly. It left him feeling unclean somehow. Still, Saira’s hexing seemed tobe working. He didn’t know what Saira was doing to him, but it was best tocontinue the playing.
“Huntress,” Will said in low reverent tones to Saira, “I knowyour offense at his life is great, but I ask you to spare him if he tells uswhat we want to know.”
“But the shriving is such beautiful thing,” she croonedsoftly in Smeadly’s face. “There is a moment when the pain is so transforming,he will gain this radiant glow, and that is hours before death lifts him away.”With a great sigh, Saira stopped the blade moving. “You may speak,” she orderedhim.
“I can’t tell you much.” Smeadly began hurriedly. “I do knowthat powerful people are running this Willy, powerful ruthless people. Thethief was the Cat, you see, as canny as they come. He says as how it was thebig pay off, and would I move it to Hong Kong for him for a nice piece? Theyfound him yesterday morning in pieces almost too small to recognize.” Smeadlypaused wetting his lips. “He was canny Willy, the best I’s ever seen. Now he’smince, and the peelers aren’t even making a row of it.”
“Then that same morning an English toff with dead eyes comesto me, asking if I could still move the Cat’s swag, only for him now instead.Bugger wasn’t any local bloke I knows that. I swear Willy, Ilookedatthose dead eyes, and it was like something pissing on me grave. I said no, onmy soul Willy, I said no. I sent him to someone else.”
“Who Smeadly?” Will asked quietly.
“A Chin smuggler name of Hu Fan, runs a sea junk called theDestiny.”Smeadly said. Both Will and Saira hissed between their teeth. Smeadly barkedout a mad laugh.
“I see you knows the blighter, alright!” Smeadly said.“Figured no loss to me, old Hu runs afoul.”
“Tell us everything Smeadly,” Will said coldly, as hesquatted closer. “We’re listening.”
Wind Dancer, the Indian Ocean
Will returned to the bridge with his coffee mug in hand andlooked out at the sun on the water. Given theirtalkwith Smeadly, they'drushed back toDancer. After a profanity and bribery−lacedscramble, they had grabbed sky that same twilight, mostly re-provisioned.They'd started from the point the little rat had given them, then begun asearch that took them in an ever expanding zigzag. It should have been nearlyimpossible to find a ship in the dark that didn’t want to be found. Only a fullmoon and clear skies plus their electric lenses gave them any hope of success.Still it was a big ocean, and night had turned into day, with no joy.
Will had taken a moment in the late morning to go to themess, where he'd been cornered by Devi Neelam, his Chief Engineer, while heate. Devi had been with the ship longer than anyone except Lawrence andhimself. Devi looked, and talked, for all the world like an aristocraticBrahman who should be in silks and jewels, rather than the stained rubber apronand boots she typically wore. She was damned good at her job though, and hadkept theDancerflying, sometimes with little more than twine and hotair.
Will wondered, not for the first time, what had led her tothe airdevil life. Not that it mattered. She was good, and fiercely loyal. Helistened to her for a moment, then cut to the chase, as she did tend to go onabout ‘her engines’.
"So how serious is it?" he asked around the last ofhis porridge. With the familiar pained expression she always got when he askedthat question, she sighed.
"This is what I am trying to tell you Captain,” she saidspreading her hands at him, “I do not know this time. The number three Tesla isflexing again. It is not enough spike that we cannot compensate." she heldup her hand to emphasis her point, "For now. But I cannot swear that itwill not spike enough to totally burn out, fusing the conduit array withit." Will knew that would leave them floating in the sky with no power atall.
“Everything I know says that we should take it off linecompletely,” She finished, raising her tea mug to her lips for emphasis.
"I thought you said the number three was good foranother six months," Will said half crossly. Now would not be the time fora serious maintenance issue, not he reflected, that it wouldn’t be the firsttime.
"Yes, Captain," she sighed, putting the mug down."I was wrong."
"Look Devi," Will said seriously. "We may beabout to go into battle. Can the ship fight?"
"We will make her fight, if it needs to be. But I cannotgive you both cannon and full speed if we take the number three off line,"She shrugged helplessly. Will thought furiously for a moment.
"Then don't." He raised his own hand to forestallher protest. "I know what the dangers are here. We have to do this one,Devi."
"Is it true that we are going after Hu Fan?" Shelooked at him soberly. Will studied her. It wasn’t like Devi to ask aftermission details that didn’t affect the ship. What was she about?
“Yes,” he said shortly.
“Do you promise me that you will kill him this time?” Shelooked at him with an intensity that was out of character for her. Will chewedslowly, and then answered.
“I don’t make those kinds of promises Devi,” he said gently.“If I have to kill him, I will. But the ship and the mission come first, youknow that. Why are you asking this?”
“Because he is an animal on two legs, Captain, as are all ofhis kind,” she said fiercely. “A rabid animal should always be put down!” Shelooked at him directly. “I ask this because I can smell that this ‘mission’ hassomething to do with your secret purpose, and I am afraid.” She held up herhand as he started to speak. “Please, spare me your jolly evasions. I know thatyou and Rogers have some purpose other than money.” She sniffed. “You may foolthe others, but not I.”
“No, captain,” Devi continued, “I ask this, because it ispossible for one to lose one’s way when you are fixed on a goal too much. Ifear this for you. If you make any deal with Hu Fan that allows him to keep hislife, than I fear that you are indeed lost.” She paused, “I will not be lostwith you.” Will looked at her soberly.
"Devi.” he began, and was saved by the ship's chime."Captain to the Bridge, Captain to the Bridge." He stood up, grabbinghis tea mug. Looking down at her, he spoke, "You're the best Devi. PerhapsI needed to hear that, I don’t know, I can’t say. Keep her in the sky forme."
“Do not get us lost,” She returned bleakly. He nodded, aquick jerk of his head.
Will walked briskly to the bridge, thinking on what Devi hadsaid. It was true that while he would like nothing better than to kill Hu Fanhimself, hehadbeen thinking of ways to get the thingamabob backwithout a fight. He’d been telling himself that he owed it to his crew to avoida fight when he could, which was true enough. But if he was honest, he reallydidn’t want any chance that he would lose a chance to get his father’s killers.After all, it wasn’t his job to police the world, was it? He crossed over toLawrence Rogers at the map table.
"What have we got?" He asked looking down at themap. Rogers pointed to it.
"Crow’s nest just spotted a Chinese junk on the horizon,here," the First Officer reported.
"Huh," Will studied the map, sipping his tea."We couldn't really have gotten that lucky could we?"
"We’re too far away to make a definiteidentification." Rogers said. "Still think that Hu Fan is runningthat bright red hull?" Will snorted, and took another sip of tea.
“Of course he is,” he said certainly. “Hu is one of the oldstyle scum. He still thinks that proclaiming his joss is stronger than anyoneelse's makes him unbeatable. Let's close on her." Will snorted, and tookanother sip. Rogers gave the orders and then pulled Will off to one side of thebridge.
"He did get away from us at Japan." Rogers said ina low voice, reminding Will of their last encounter.
"True words," Will said. He sat his cup down andleaned on the map table, looking out at the sea. "This time though, hedoesn’t have a bunch of innocents for pawns."
"That we know of," Rogers insisted. "He maythough, that is his business."
"Aiya, maybe." Will looked out silently for amoment. Maybe Devi was right, Will thought. After all the shady deals, thecompromises, maybe it was time to actually do it right, just this once.
"Lawrence,” he said in decision, “this time Hu Fandoesn’t get away. If the crow comes to the corn, burn him to the water."Rogers looked at his Captain carefully,
"I thought that our mission was recovering thepacket," he reminded Will. Will nodded agreement.
"And so it is. But Hu Fan isn't going to go free withouta by your leave, hear me?" Hunting Owl fixed his gaze on his FirstOfficer.
"Will," Rogers said softly, "you can't killall the villains in the world." Will grinned his boyish grin at him,reaching for his tea mug.
"Wait and see," he vowed cockily. Will breathedeasier. This decision felt right to him. If a deal could be struck, he’d honorit, however much he’d hate it, but it felt better to know that.
"And if he has hostages again?" Rogers continuedremorselessly. Will's jaw hardened. At that moment, Naomi Walters spoke fromacross the bridge.
"Crow’s nest reports water ship has red hull,” shereported. Ship is underway with both sail and prop." Will looked atRogers, and grinned again.
“That’s him,” Will asserted. “Let’s dance then." Hepushed off from the map table tugging absently at one of his braids.
"Mister Walters," Rogers called out, "Soundaction stations." The chime followed by her voice rang through the ship.
"Michael," Will said, bracing his legs and staringout at the ocean waves. "See if you can make a connection. It’s a longshot I know. Use our identity, and ask for Hu Fan himself. Hiki,” he called tothe bridge look out on his left. “Same message on the heliograph. Let’s see ifthey’ll talk."
"Aye Aye, Cap'n” McGuire acknowledged. His set the Aetherwaveto the standard maritime addresses and began calling though them. The lookoutclacked away on the heliograph as well, sending flashes of coded light towardsthe junk. Not every ship had a wave, so other methods such as signal lights andflags where still used as well.
"Lawrence," Will asked, "How long toclose?" Rogers looked at the compass while measuring with a pair ofcalipers on the map. He straightened up, looking at Will’s back.
"Unless he has more power than he should, we'll be inboarding range in about thirty minutes,” he reported.
“So we will be boarding then?” Saira asked, entering thebridge Saira looked out towards the ship on the water. Will nodded a greetingat her as she came to stand beside him.
“Most likely we will,” Will answered. “I doubt that he’llactually want to turn over what we’re after. He’ll make us come get it.” Hesaid grimly.
“And what is your station’s status, Arms-Master?” Rogersasked archly.
“Oh, all the secondary guns are manned and ready, coil cannonis on stand-by, and the Tigers can muster in ten minutes,” she replied withoutturning around.
“I thought that we would be boarding, and so came up here tosee the target, naturally,” she finished innocently.
“Naturally,” Rogers replied in the same tone.
“Enough, you two,” Will ordered them. He turned to Sairaquizzically, “I still can’t believe you said to Smeadly that you would ‘shrivehis soul’ and it worked.”
“Smeadly is a very religious man in his way,” she repliedsolemnly. Rogers snorted at this.
“William Smeadly?” Rogers said incredulously. “I’ll believethat when I see it.”
“No answer on any connection, Cap’n,” McGuire reported. “Nojoy on the heliograph either.”
Will nodded, “Keep trying both. Let me know if you get anyanswer at all.” He paced towards the electric lens mounted at the front of thebridge, Saira and Rogers following behind him. They took turns at the lensexamining the ship which sported a wake that indicated they had an enginerunning as well as their sails.
“It’s Hu Fan alright,” Will stated, recognizing the ship. “Hecan’t imagine he can out run us,” he said musingly. He turned to his officers,“Thoughts?”
“He’s hoping to keep us from closing,” Rogers announced.“It’s what they did in Japan.”
“Agreed,” Saira said. “Only this time he has believes that hehas nothing to bargain with, else he would answer our hails. That means nohostages. We shall take him yes?” She asked eagerly, hand grasping the hilt ofone of her knives.
“Yes, we will.” Will replied decisively. “Here’s my idea,” heoutlined the plan in a few sentences. Saira was grinning in feral agreementwhen he finished. “Any other ideas or objections?” he asked finally. Rogersfrowned.
“If I am to direct the attack from the ship,” he glancedpointedly at Saira, “which I believe we should discuss in more detail, wherewill you be?” He asked.
“On the drop with the boarding party,” Will replied. Heanswered their surprised looks, “You’ll still be leading it Saira. I have everyfaith in you. I’m going along for Hu Fan.” His face brooked no argument.
“Pity,” Saira remarked, hands still on her knife hilts. “Ihad hoped for him myself. Still it will be as you say, Cap’n. I shall go musterfor the drop.”
“Do so, I’ll be along.” Will ordered. He watched her leavethe bridge then turned towards Rogers. The First Officer leaned closer to him,so that no one else could overhear,
“Captain,” Lawrence began earnestly, “I strongly suggest thatI not be given combat command. You should have it, or you should give it tosomeone else. If I were to freeze again as onDefender…” His voicetrailed off as Hunting Owl forestalled him with a hand to Rogers’ shoulder.
“It’s time you did this, Lawrence,” the younger man saidgently. “I’ve watched you; I know you can do this. As my father used to say,you have to get back up on the horse sometime.” He went on, giving theEnglishman no time to respond. “Besides, I can’t let Saira have all the fun nowcan I? Now I’m going to suit up. You have the bridge,” he finished formally.Rogers straightened.
"Aye, aye, Captain," Rogers replied stoutly."I have the bridge."
Lower Corridors,Wind Dancer, China Sea
"We’re suiting up as well." Saira said to Ravin asthey strode quickly down the corridor. She had met him up with him whileheading to the armory. "Most surely yon Chinaman has some sparkies, thoughhopefully not many.” She was pleased with how Ravin had settled down after hisfirst drop.
“Joy,” Ravin said shortly at the prospect. The hot rubbersuits were not comfortable to put it mildly.
Saira privately agreed with him, but had been glad that Cap’nWill had agreed to the expense of the suits. Electric small arms were becomingcommon, and the rubber suits gave the best protection possible against their‘bullets’. The suits were not perfect protection. If not properly sealed, or ifthey got torn, the current could still kill the wearer, but to face sparkiesunarmored was tantamount to suicide.
"Be of good cheer,” she said to Ravin with a smile. “Wego from freezing up here to sweltering down there. It is very good for theblood. Besides," she continued seriously, “you truly do want the rubber ifyou get zapped, trust me. So keep it sealed up.”
They entered the armory, a room with benches for changingdown the middle, weapons racked along the walls, interspersed with suit lockers.Others were already changing, or checking weapons. The room echoed to the usualbanter and catcalls of the Tigers.
Saira began peeling off layers as she went, grabbing the suitthat had her name above it. No one bothered about skin lasted long on anairship, there simply wasn't room. She put it beside her on the bench, and satto pull off her boots.
“Oy, Saira!" Tikku called from down the room in alilting voice. "When do I get to suckle those big bubbies of yours?" Tikkuhad started the joke upon her first boarding action. Saira, far from finding itannoying, thought it endearing in a way. Saira stood, pulling on the rubberleggings up her limbs. Feeling impish, she cooed back to the woman withoutmissing a beat.
"Why tonight, Tikku, my light of love," Sairagushed breathlessly. For a moment, all other chatter died in the room.
The only things more guaranteed to get her Tigers attentionthan a boarding action were sex, pay, and grog, although not always in thatorder. It was common knowledge that the islander Tikku really only fancied themales. That sort of knowledge traveled quickly onboard ship.
Tikku’s running joke though, gave voice to what half of themthought upon seeing Saira’s ample endowments, the Arms-Master knew. Her usualanswer to Tikku was a good naturedget stuffedin increasingly inventivelanguage that had grown into part of the Tigers boarding ritual. It also remindedanyone what they’d get if Saira wasn’t interested at the same time. This was anew turn though, and the others stopped to see how it would play out.
"Really?" Tikku had frozen in surprise, a boot inone hand. Her voice now held a slight quiver to it, and her eyes were wide as astartled deer’s.
"Aiya, tonight," Saira replied sweetly. She stoodslowly with a sultry smile, pulling on the rubber tunic. Saira left the frogsopen until she had to close them. Most did. The rubber didn’t breathe at all,and there was no point in sweating more than you had to. After fastening herknife belt in place, she stood facing Tikku with her hands on her hips,thrusting her exposed chest out. "In your dreams, that is," shefinished in the same breathless voice.
The whole room, including Tikku, howled with laughter, andwent back to their preparations. Saira crossed to the other wall and unpluggedher personal pistol, checking that the small needle showed full charge. Sheplaced it in the holster at the small of her back. She then chose an electricrifle from the rack, checked it as well, and then pulled the strap over herhead.
Ravin, standing next to her, pulled another bandoleer ofshotgun shells over his shoulder. He also had two revolving pistols at hisbelt.
“Arms−Master," he said to her, "I still donot see why you like the sparkies so much. Once you have fired your shots, itis just a big club. It is not as if you can carry a Tesla engine around withyou to reload it."
Saira hefted the rifle, caressing it before placing it on asling over her shoulders.
“I prefer how precise these are in the killing.” She gesturedat his shotgun, “Yon gunpowder cannons are loud, smelly, and kick like a mule.Besides, with a sparkie, if I can see them then they are already dead. When thesparkies are empty, why then I have these," She patted the hilts of her Sheffieldblades. The forearm length custom knives had been her uncle’s parting gift whenshe left his merchant ship to go out on her own. Between her training in Naga Darkways,and her uncle’s rough−house methods, she knew that there were few whocould stand against her in close quarters. Ravin shook his head.
"I would rather continue to keep them at adistance," he said patting the automatic shotgun. “I am not good with theblades like you are.”
Saira gave him a smile, “True, although you are not that bad.We will see to it that you get better,” she promised. “I, on the other hand,”her smile grew even bigger and somewhat evil, “am very good. And not bad withthe blades either.” Ravin started shaking his head at this not sure if she wasteasing him or not.
“With respect Arms-Master,” he said diffidently, bobbing hishead. “I cannot always tell when you are serious and when you are not.”
“That is what my mother always says,” Saira patted him on thecheek. His face actually turned darker beneath his skin as blood suffused it.How charming, she thought in amusement, he was actually blushing. Her eyeturned towards the movement at the door, seeing Cap’n Will enter.
He was dressed for boarding in a black rubber suit with thebattle vest over it, the gun belt at his hips holding his repeater pistol onone side, balanced by an equally long Bowie knife, on the other. Saira pattedRavin on the shoulder, and walked over to stand by the Captain.
“Listen up all,” she said. Everyone quieted, looking at herexpectantly. “Gather ‘round. The Cap’n is going down with us, and he will beexplaining the drop.” Everyone gathered quietly around Will who laid out arough sketch of target ship on the bench.
“Here’s the plan. We’re closing on Hu Fan’s junk. There’s asingle breech loader on the fore deck, what looks to be two light Gatling's onthe aft deck. No other heavy guns that we can see. Reckon the crew’s about ahundred or so all up. ” He pointed while he talked. “We’re going to steam baththe fore deck, and drop down on her there. Dancer will be angled to give ussuppression fire over the aft deck with the Hotchkiss Guns.” He handed thebriefing off to Saira with a wave.
“Georgios, Abdul, you will spike the breech loader,” Sairapicked up the briefing without a pause. The two strong men nodded solemnly.Saira continued, “Miriam, you will stand with them to cover a retreat if weneed one.” The ginger−braided woman patted her long rifle cockily, “Yougot it boss,” she said. Saira nodded at her.
“I will lead one group down the port side,” Saira remindedthem, “the Captain will lead the other down the starboard side.” Will nodded inagreement at her. She looked around at them. “You all know the way of it, wehave trained for this. There is plenty of cover spread across the deck. Advanceas fast as you can, but do not do anything stupid. Support each other in theadvance, and make over-lapping fields of fire. They may only be slaver scum,but do not let that get you cocky. We move fast, hit them hard. Do not givethem time to organize.”
“We givin’ any quarter?” Abdul asked. Saira looked towardsWill for an answer to that. Will judged the faces looking at him, weighting hisanswer.
“I’m inclined not to give any quarter,” he finally announced.“What do you all think?” A deep sound like the growl of a large animal answeredhim. While no saints themselves,Wind Dancer’screw wasn’t much inclinedto mercy towards slavers or raiders to begin with, and the tales of Hu Fan hadonly hardened that inclination. Will nodded at this response as if he expectedno less.
“No quarter it is then,” he proclaimed.
Everyone had their own reasons to hate slavers, Sairareflected. The older veterans had already chosen not to become wolves after thewar, despite how easy it would be given the savagery around them. The youngercrew had seen what true evil outlaws and reavers did, and rejected it. They mayhave joined for the money, or the killing, or both, but there some lines thatwere not crossed. The actions of Hu Fan at their last meeting had crossed thoselines, she thought, and they all knew it. Dancers did not forget, or forgive.
“I want to remind you though,” Will said, “what our primarymission is. What we’re here for is a metal cylinder about so tall marked with athunderbolt.” He held his hands about two feet apart. “That’s our pay off. Ireckon that Hu Fan will either have that below decks in his quarters, or in astrong room somewhere. First to find it, let Saira or me know. If we’re stillfighting, we’ll start to regroup to the lift point with it. That’s our firstpriority. All goes well we’ll lift with it, and burn the ship down.” There wasa second growl of agreement around the room at that. “Otherwise we keep at themuntil they’re all dead, and then we find it.” He looked around with his eyebrowraised, “any questions?”
“Do we care about the ship?” asked Tikku. She had twofighting sticks thrust through her belt besides pistols and she toted a shotgunalmost as large as she was.
“Not as such,” Will replied. “We’re getting paid enough thatwe don’t need her for a prize.” He held up a finger in admonishment, “Thatsaid, no grenades, and the Hotchkisses will be slanting their fire. We wantthat cylinder; I don’t want to sink the ship under us before we get it.”
Georgios, as usual before a boarding rasped, “What we gettingpaid for this bloody cylinder again?”
Will grinned at him, and repeated the figure. There was amoment of almost reverent awe at the sum.
“Must be somebody’s bloody nacker for that much,” Georgiosgrowled. Everyone laughed. Then the chime sounded overhead, signaling that theywere nearing the attack run. Saira quickly ticked them off into two teams eitherto follow the Captain or her.
“Any problems, or final questions?” Saira asked. Silenceanswered her. She nodded as if that was what she had expected. “Alright,” Sairasaid, “get to the bay, watch each other’s back, and remember…” On cue everyoneraised their fists and roared theWind Dancermotto with one voice, “Noone gets left behind!” Not a one of them, quick or dead, would be abandonedwhen the ship lifted as was common among some other airships. That mattered.That was what made themWind Dancers. They moved quickly down thecorridor towards the cargo doors. Every one of them, Saira thought withsatisfaction, knew that Hu Fan was as good as dead.
Foredeck, the Sea Ship Destiny
Yuan had served Hu Fan since the time when he was still aboy. When the Sky Demons had come, they had destroyed everything in Yuan’syoung world. His father’s last act had been to push his son through a smallgate in the compound wall before the Demons fire ray had taken him,obliterating both Yuan’s family and his home in flame and terror.
He had become one of the many refugees, stripped of positionand wealth. He was always hungry and scared. Hu Fan had found him, and promisedthat if Yuan followed him, he would never be scared again. Until recently, HuFan had kept that promise. Yuan had learned from his teacher well, becomingdeadly and ruthless, while to Yuan’s mind Hu Fan had become even more cunningover the years. They had preyed on the weak sheep of the whole South Seas, and everyonewas afraid of them. They had prospered and their joss had grown. But now, Yuanwas the one afraid.
It had started when his master, Hu Fan, had entered into theaccursed deal with the pale Englishman who called himself Thaddeus Kane. Hu Fanagreed to smuggle the small cylinder, which seemed to have a great value forsomething so small. The addition of the woman Scholar that Kane had luredaboard with him at the last moment was a trivial matter in comparison. It waseasier than a hold of human sheep to carry. Too easy for the money, Yuan nowsaw.
Of course, Hu Fan had no intention of honoring the deal. Oncethey were in the open seas, Hu Fan planned to be rid of Kane, and thennegotiate better prices with whoever would pay most for either the cylinder orthe woman Scholar. They had done such many times over the years. That was howthe world worked.
But then, in Hu Fans cabin, the impossible had happened. TheEnglishman Kane had drunk the poisoned tea strong enough to kill a dozen men,with no effect save to rouse the Englishman's anger. The ensuing fight had beena nightmare. Kane had crushed the throats of two of Yuan’s best men before theycould even raise their swords. Kane had shrugged off both bullets and swordthrusts with ease, killing men with his bare hands until Yuan had taken himfrom behind. A single sword stroke had decapitated the monster. For monsterKane had been. No honest red blood that gushed came out of the trunk of thetwitching body Yuan had severed the head from, only a pale pink jelly-like fluidthat slowly oozed. For the first time in his life, Yuan had seen Hu Fan asterrified as he was himself.
They had calmed the crew after disposing of the body. Manywhispered of devils and evil spirits angered. Yuan had beaten some of thewhisperers himself while terrified that they were right. Hu Fan had not beenhimself ever since, taking to his cabin, singing strange prayers in the night.Then the accursed airship had found them.
Hu Fan had stayed in his cabin like a woman, leaving Yuan torally the crew to fight off theWind Dancer. Yuan remembered Hunting Owlfrom before as a cunning warrior. That he simply didn’t stand off and use theircursed lightning cannon said that Hunting Owl wanted something other thanrevenge, likely either the cylinder or the woman. Hu Fan would have known howto use that knowledge to their advantage. Yuan simply didn’t care. He had nointention of trying to bargain with Hunting Owl. That would show weakness. Evennow he watched the blinking light from the airship pleading with him tosurrender, which simply gave away how weak they were.
It also meant that Yuan had a chance. He had ordered them toturn about so that the fore cannon could be used to better effect. No aircaptain risked his ship getting holed lightly. If Yuan could keep the loominggrey hulk beyond boarding range until dark, they might still slip away. Thus,he had come to the forecastle to take command of the main gun himself.
“No, you son of a sow,” Yuan screamed. He kicked the gunneraway from the sight. “The elevation must be higher!” he waved angrily at thetwo deck hands who frantically worked to raise the gun barrel.
Yuan placed himself to sight the barrel, and waved for themto stop. He grimaced while taking hold of the firing lanyard. “Now, die!” hescreamed at the ship and jerked the lanyard. The gun gave a roar. Yuan followedthe shot, seeing it fall just short of the lower hull of windows where he knewthe ship was steered from.
The gun crew leaped forward to reload the gun, while Yuanwatched the ship come closer. Suddenly, there was a flash that blinded him,followed by a roaring hiss like a thousand snakes. Yuan, still blinded, fell tothe deck screaming, his skin afire.
TheWind Dancerhad fired its lightning cannon infront of theDestiny’sbow, causing not only those who were looking upto be blinded, but also creating a cloud of hot steam to explode over the foredeck, scalding the defenders as it passed. The airship glided forward, turningsmoothly sideways as it came to rest over the deck gun. The Hotchkiss guns onthe side of theDanceropened fire, their rotating barrels firing heavycaliber rounds at a rate of thirty a minute, shredding both men and the woodenaft deck where the Gatling guns were mounted. FromDancer’sopen cargobay, Will, Saira, and her Tigers slid down ropes to land on the raised foredeckof the sailing ship.
Crouching low as bullets sang overhead, Will started to lowwalk to the relative safety of the rear guardrail, when his ankle was grabbedby one of the still writhing gun crew. The blind man was screaming whileclawing to reach a sword on his belt. Will quickly shot him once in the headfor mercy. The hand jerked back, the screaming man going quiet as he died.
Reaching the railing for cover, Will looked left to see thatthe rest had gotten to similar refuge. The only thing that had let them get tocover was the Hotchkiss fire keeping most of the slavers heads down. He knewthough that they couldn’t wait here long, or the slavers could rally andcharge, hoping to overwhelm them with numbers. Saira signaled to him that theyneeded to advance. He signaled back agreement.
With an ululating scream Saira sprang up, a green sparktwinkling from the twin horned muzzle of her rifle as she fired, the dry crackof the bolt cleaving the air. Will saw one of her new Tigers, Ravin was hisname Will recalled, spring up behind her, his automatic shotgun booming as hefired. A splash of light and smoke appeared on Ravin’s chest, followed by thecrack of a sparkie as he went down. Will cursed, peering ahead trying to seethe shooter. Hu Fans men did have electrics.
Saira glanced behind her as the young man fell. Her headwhipped back towards the rear of the ship, and then in rapid secession shefired off three bolts, the cracks loud as a giant’s bull-whip, emerald muzzleflashes strobing as she gave that piercing undulating cry again. Saira thenleapt over the railing with the rest of her team behind her, all of them takingup her scream like a war cry. She ducked down again as the others fanned outbehind her, popped up to fire again, then sought cover behind the crates andbales lashed to the deck.
Will signaled to his group, while drawing his Bowie in hisother hand. Screaming his own war cry, he sprang over the side, the others ofhis group yelling and firing as they came behind him. He almost landed on aslaver who had trying to been sneaking up under the railing. His knife slasheddown at a face that reflected the same surprise that Will felt. As the slaverfell, Will flinched at the whistle of a bullet passing near his head. Snarling,his gun punched a hole in a rifleman’s chest across the deck from him. Then hedove for the cover of a crate.
What followed was a whirling hell of shooting, stabbing,punching, and ducking, as theDancersmade their way across the deck ofthe ship, pushing the desperate slavers back into the maw of the Hotchkiss gunsfield of fire. Will paused behind a bail to reload. Shoving his knife pointdown into the deck beside him, he broke open the breach of his revolver,feeding shells into the barrel by feel instead of sight, all the while scanningthe battle with his eyes.
They’d come more than two thirds of the way down ship. Theslavers appeared vastly outgunned. There wasn’t any more electric fire fromtheir side and it seemed that they had no suits to protect from the deadlybolts. The Hotchkiss guns roaring fire overhead was preventing any of theslavers from reaching the aft deck with its Gatling guns, mostly theDancerswere being met with blades and gunpowder pistols now.
Will knew their advantage was about to change as his people’ssparkies ran out of charge. He saw Saira across from him, disemboweling an axwielder with her twin blades. Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anycoordination to the defense, which puzzled Will. He knew that Hu Fan was aclever fighter, but his men seemed both confused and demoralized. He sawanother slaver turn to run, when a bolt caught the man. He fell, spinning andtwitching, dead before he hit the deck. Will still hadn’t seen Hu Fan among thedefenders. What was the old bastard planning, he worried watching for sometrick of the old slaver.
The main resistance left seemed to be a small group that hadpulled some barrels and bails into a barricade before a pair of ordinate doorsleading into the underside of the aft deck. The Hotchkiss had slowed tosporadic firing, wary of hitting the approaching Dancers.
Will cocked his revolver, and leaned over the top of thebail. He fired quickly, the barrels turning as fast as he could pull thetrigger. Three of the slavers behind the makeshift barricade fell as if poleaxed, the others flinched down. In that moment, Saira and Tikku sprinted acrossthe deck, vaulting the barricade. Saira with her long knives whirling like buzzsaws and Tikku with her fighting sticks in each hand. The two turned thedefenders into a knot of confusion, slicing throats and crushing skulls.
Cursing all damn fools, Will pulled up his Bowie knife andleapt around the bail he’d been behind. Yelling, he charged forward shooting ashe went. His last shot caught a sallow faced man who had been about to shootSaira in the back. He jumped the barricade swinging, empty gun in one hand,knife in the other. The three were joined by otherDancers,swarming inwith long knives and deadly intent. In seconds, they were the only ones stillstanding before the doors. Will looked at Saira, as they stood among thecarnage, breath heaving.
“That was just a mite crazy, you know.” Hunting Owl remarkedto her. Saira laughed, flicking blood off the long blades in her hands. She wascovered in crimson, none of which Will assumed was hers.
“Not really Cap’n Will,” Saira smiled at him. “You hadspooked them right well with your shooting. Tikku and I just thought we wouldjust take advantage of the moment.” Will laughed back, as the other sounds ofbattle began falling silent.
“Well, looks as if you were right.” Will allowed. He lookedaround in the suddenly eerie silence that can sometimes occur at the end of afight. “Appears we got this one,” He observed unnecessarily. Saira nodded,raising her voice to for a check.
“Everyone, sound off,” the Arms-Master trumpeted. They bothlistened as every one of the Tigers shouted their name and how they were. Willwas relieved that barring a few wounds, they hadn’t lost anyone. Saira alsobreathed easier when the last voice called out. She smiled at Will.
“Well, no batch of low life slaver scum is better than we areany day, yes?” She clicked her knives together for emphasis. Will made a soundof agreement.
“Don’t get too happy yet,” he warned. “We still need thatcylinder. Did you see anything of Hu Fan?” Saira shook her head, then pointedwith a knife towards the doors.
“Do you figure he is in there?” she wondered. Will nodded ashe sheathed his Bowie knife.
“That’s what I reckon,” he said. “I want you to take overhere and look for a cargo hold.” He reloaded his revolver again, checked theload, and then closed the gun with a snap. “I think I’ll pay our host a visitin his cabin, give him our best wishes,” he finished with a grim grin.
“Let me come with you,” Saira asked simply. Will shook hishead.
“No. I can do this one fine,” he said. “Secure the ship,search for that cylinder. I’ll be back with you before you know it.” He flashedher his boyish grin. She started to say something, and then merely gave him hersharp nod.
“As you say, Cap’n,” Saira said. She returned his grin withone of her own. “Be safe alright?”
“Of course,” he returned. Crossing to the doors, he lookedthem over for some sort of trap or trigger. With a shrug he worked the handle,discovering that the door wasn’t even bolted, and with a quick look back atSaira and Tikku, he hefted his revolver and slid into the dark.
Saira struggled with her urge to follow him. Sheknewthey were not clear of danger yet, her spirit sense told her so. Instead, shelooked back down the length of the ship. Dead bodies littered the deck,thankfully none of themDancers. She wanted to pause to sing offeringsof glory and the dead to the Serpent Mother, but did not. She had learned thatsome of the crew grew uneasy when she did that, for some reason, besides therewas still more to do, especially if there was still more danger.
“Listen up you Tigers!” As the others raised their headsagain she began called out orders. “Tommy! Georgios! Tether theDancerto the fore deck. Anyone wounded get back topside and seen to! Ravin! Tikku! Onme!” When the younger man shuffled over to her, she looked him overskeptically.
“Go topside and report to Mr. Rogers, she ordered. “Say tohim exactly this: ‘Ship taken. Cap’n gone in search of the fat rat, stillsearching for packet,’ then report to Dr. Wu to look at you.”
“I am fine Master Saira,” Ravin protested.” Let me stay hereand help.” Saira’s face turned stern.
“That was an order, Mr. Singh, the Arms-Master said. “Itwould be best if you followed it. You took a full on jolt there. I warned youto button it up tight! You are fortunate to still be alive.” She slapped him onthe shoulder, and continued in a gentler voice, “You did fine today Ravin, justfine. Go take the bunk time while you can. Now repeat back the message. He didso. She nodded when he was finished, slightly less concerned that the jolt mayhave affected his reason. She had seen it happen.
“Good,” she replied, “Now go. We will discuss the propersealing of your suit another time.” She watched as the young man make his waycarefully across the deck. She had seen sparkie injuries appear from nowherebefore, the jerking limbs, the scattered thinking. She felt that he wouldlikely be alright. Tikku shook her head standing beside her.
“Men,” the other woman sighed. “Why do they always have to beso difficult?” Saira looked at her sideways.
“Because they think that if they do stupid strutting things,they have more chance of getting in our yoni,” Saira remarked dryly. They bothlaughed. Tikku’s eyes followed the young mans’ back as he walked towards thelift ropes.
“Well, I think that he has a good chance as it is,” Tikkuobserved. Saira looked at her in surprise, then slapped the other woman’s armin friendly encouragement with a grin. They both laughed again. Tikku pointedto Saira’s bracer.
“Could you not have called the message in on that instead ofhaving Ravin deliver it?” Saira looked down at her arm and shrugged.
“Perhaps,” she replied. “To be honest I forgot it was there.Besides, Ravin needed something to get him upstairs, and this way I know thatRogers will get the message.”
Saira looked around one more time to see that everyone wasmoving about their jobs, checking that the wounded slavers were really dead,taking up positions to guard the deck. They were good devils, the lot of them.She felt the combination of tiredness and exaltation she always felt afterbattle, but there was no time for that. The sooner they were off this ship, thebetter. Sheknewtrouble was still here.
“Come on,” she said to Tikku, “Let us go searching for thistiny treasure.”
Will cat footed down the dark narrow hall. He’d met no one sofar, but he could smell the rich scent of joss sticks burning ahead of him.Light leaked from the cracks around the door at the end of the hall, which hefigured was where his quarry hid. He kicked at the door. It sprang open withsurprising ease. He slid into the room and stopped.
Hu Fan sat on a throne like chair, wrapped in a silk shroud,unmoving. His gaze was fixed on two boxes resting on the teak table before him,his hands lightly resting on their plungers. The boxes had wires that led offinto the walls of the room. Will stopped cold at the sight of them, even whilehis gun barrels on Hu Fan.
“William Hunting Owl,” Hu Fan croaked without looking up. “Ihad thought that you would come for me yourself.”
“It’s all over Hu Fan.” Will said quietly, “Give me thecylinder you took on, and you might still get out of this.”
The old man began laughing softly, “The cylinder ismeaningless now. Of course it is over. It was over the moment I trafficked withdemons and devils. I have done many things, but never have I cursed my soul andhad my luck desert me so.”
Will had no idea what he was on about. Slowly he movedforward, gun steady.
“That’s as may be, Hu Fan. But I can still end your scummylife right now, you know. You don’t have any tortured women to hide behind thistime.”
Hu Fan laughed harder, so hard that his shoulders rocked.
“Ah, William Hunting Owl, you will thank me for saving you,you know. The only safety we all have now is death!” He looked up at Will, hiseyes blazing with madness. “The Demons are coming, and it is best we die now!”Will shot him through the head while he talked.
Hu Fan jerked back with the force of the bullet; one handpushed down on a plunger, while the other fell away. There came a muffled whoopas the ship rocked. There was the sudden smell of burning wood. The crazybastard had fired the ship!
Will quickly looked around the cabin, seeing a small fortunein the furnishings. He spotted a large key on the table next to the plungers, andscooped it up. Running back up the hallway, he burst out on to the deck, amidthe exclamations of his crew. Turning he saw the thick smoke that billowed fromthe far aft.
“He’s fired the ship,” Will yelled, while waving his arms.“Start moving towards the lift!”
Saira came up out of the hold with Tikku behind her.
“Cap’n!” She shouted. “We’ve found the strong room! We cannotopen it though.”
Will held up the key, “Where is it?” he shouted. Pointing theway, Saira led the three of them down the ramp to a large door with thick ironbands and a strong lock.
Will shoved the key into the lock. It turned, with a click.They pulled open the heavy door, and stopped in amazement.
Inside stood a white woman with red hair, dressed as aEuropean toff. She stood up straight and looked at them without fear, a lengthof chain ready at her side.
“I,” she announced, “am Lady Abigail Hadley, Royal Scholar ofthe British Empire. If you aid in my release, I am sure that you may berewarded.”
Will took in the bucket in the corner, the unkempt state ofher dress, and figured she was a captive. He swore to himself in as manylanguages as he knew. Was she going to go hysterical on him? The last thing heneeded was to have to mollycoddle some Brit aristo. Hadley? Was she who thedamned Scholar had been riling up the Spider? He noticed a Scholar’s badge onthe lapel of her jacket. He bowed sardonically, his revolver waving to oneside.
“Well, Lady Abigail Hadley, of the British Empire,” he saidto her, “if you’ll kindly step out of that strong room so we can loot it, I’msure we can oblige you somehow. But if you don’t drop that chain, we can alwaysjust shoot you now.” Saira and Tikku shared a glance, their eyes rolling atWill’s speech. They both knew he would never do any such thing to any prisonerof Hu Fan’s. The aristocratic woman’s shoulders slumped. She slowly dropped thechain she had been holding, and came towards them on unsteady legs. Will heldout a one hand offering to steady her, the other pointing his gun at her.
“It’s alright,” he said in what he hoped was a more soothingtone. Hereallydidn’t have time for this. The ship lurched. Lady Hadleygrabbed a hold of the door frame to steady herself at the same moment that Willdid. “I promise that neither me nor mine will harm you,” He continued aspatiently as he could, “but we really need to move right quickly here. Theship’s on fire you see.” With a startled look, the woman came out more quickly,ignoring Wills hand. He waved towards Saira. “Saira, take her top side to myday cabin. See that she’s alright, and stay with her.” He raised his eyebrow insilent order.
Saira nodded at Will in understanding. If the woman wasplaying some kind of deep game, Saira might be able to ferret it out with herpowers. If she was a victim, and had been brutalized, she was the best person onboard to help her. She took the Englishwoman gently by the arm.
“Come on now,” she said as gently as she could, let’s get youout of here.” She held out a hand towards her which again Abigail shrugged off.The Englishwoman turned back to Will.
“There was an Englishman named Thaddeus Kane aboard, “shedemanded, “Is he among you?” Will raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Sorry to say, we found no Englishmen.” He went on moresoftly, hoping she wouldn’t faint or something. “Chances are Hu Fan killed himalready.” Her eyes lit with a fire that Will hadn’t expected to see.
“Good. Then I won’t have to kill him myself.” She turned toSaira, “lead the way, thank you.”
Will watched them ascend the ramp. Another bloody aristosavant named Hadley? Not too damn likely. Well, he thought, one thing at atime. He turned back to the contents of the room and pointed.
“That one Tikku! Handle it gently like over to me.”
Abigail stood blinking in the sunlight. The woman next to herwas a touch shorter than herself. She had very short black hair and was clearlysome sort of Hindu half−caste. She wore the same black suit as theothers, with a rifle slung across her back, two very long knives at her beltand a pair of goggles shoved up on her forehead. To Abigail’s amazement, shebegan undoing the frogs of her tunic, showing a very ample, and very bare,bosom. The woman took a deep breath, and sighed.
“Ah, fresh air is good.”
Abigail took a breath herself, and nearly choked. The airheld an almost impossible stench, doubtless caused by the many dead bodies thatlittered the deck and the black ominous smoke billowing from the rear of theship, which did indeed appear to be on fire. Whoever her saviors were, theywere deadly people indeed. She looked up, and saw the bulk of an airshipoverhead. There were lines of rope leading from the deck up into the dark mawof the ship. As she watched, a man holding onto one was pulled quickly up intoits depths.
“This way Lady Hadley,” the woman gestured them towards theropes. “My name is Saira by the way, Saira Brighton.” She gently extended herkalas,sensing the innocent wariness of an animal feeling trapped. “I hope thingshaven’t been too bad for you,” she said, looking at the British womancarefully. “We do have healing means on board if you need them.” Her voice, Abigailjudged, held only genuine concern as she took her double meaning. She shook herhead at the woman.
“No thank you, Saira. Did I get that right?” She pronounceditSigh-raas she thought she had heard it. Saira nodded at her,continuing to weave her spirit magic on the unsuspecting woman. The intent wasonly to get her to feel relaxed with Saira, and so required a more subtle mindtouch than something such as she had used on Smeadly.
“I mean to say while there were bad things,” Abigailcontinued, “there was no bad in that sense.” Her face grimaced. “Fortunate Isuppose, although I was left with the sense that it was more of the ‘don’tbruise the fruit, so we can’t sell it,’ than any good fortune. Horrible feelingin its own way,” She shook her head, as if to clear it. “I do beg your pardonfor going on.” She stopped, looking at the woman, and tried on a smile. Withthe ship on fire, she judged she had no choice but to go along with thesepeople if they would have her. Doubtless the waters were full of sharks. Atleast they acted more politely than her last captors. “Please call me Abigail,Lady Hadley was my mother.” Saira smiled at this.
“Right then, Abigail,” Saira said. “We will get you uptopside, and have a nice cup of tea. You are not afraid of heights I hope?”They had reached the ropes. Abigail looked up and swallowed. It looked a longways up.
“No, not as such,” she said. “Although, I am afraid thoughthat I am not familiar with this means of transport.” The woman, Saira, grabbeda rope and was attaching a hook to a ring on her belt. She then placed one footinto a stirrup, and held out her arms towards Abigail.
“Oh, that is as no mind, really,” Saira said reassuringly,“All you have to do is place your foot on top of mine and wrap your arms aroundme very tight.” Abigail attempted to follow these instructions only to have thewoman pull her even tighter to her. Beneath the sweat, Saira, smelled of spiceand incense. Abigail hated to think what she must smell like given theprivations of her voyage, although Saira did not seem bothered by it. While Abigailhad appreciated the charms of her own sex in the past, she found her currentthoughts puzzling at best. It must be a form of shock she decided. After all,it wasn’t every day one went from being kidnapped by pirates only to being rescuedby other pirates.
“There we are, Abigail,” Saira said softly to her. Realizingthat she was about to be pulled some hundreds of feet up into the air, shepulled the Hindu woman even closer and swallowed.
“Saira,” she asked in a small voice, “does anyone ever falloff?”
“Not while I hold them,” Saira reassured her. Before Abigailcould think better of it, Saira suddenly pulled on the rope. They were hurledupwards at an incredible speed before Abigail could catch her breath. Sairadeftly swung the two of them over and onto the deck of the hold, Abigail stillclinging to her tightly. Saira laughed.
“You can let go now, Abigail,” she assured the woman. “It’ssafe.” Abigail disentangled herself quickly, looking first at the other woman,then down at the ship far below. She swallowed, seeking to steady herbreathing.
“Well,” Abigail said blandly, I must say that now I haveliterally been swept off my feet.” Saira’s face was a momentary study insurprise. Then she laughed out loud, as did the others in the bay who heardAbigail's remark.
“You are a bit alright, Abigail,” Saira proclaimed as sheunhooked her belt, She shook the line free, and draped it back over the openhatch. Abigail watch as the line was lowered again, and then looked up attemptingto discern the mechanism.
“Electric pulleys, very efficient, “she nodded approvingly.
“Well,” Saira said with a shrug, “They do the job. Come on,” shesmiled at Abigail, “tea is this way.”
Wind Dancer, over the Indian Ocean
Saira watched the woman eat another bowl of the soup thatwas always available in the mess.She sat across from her in Cap’nWill’s day cabin, inclined to think that Lady Hadley was who she said she was.Clearly she hadn’t eaten much for some time, yet still ate with manners suitedfor a toff dinner party. Hard to play act that. As Abigail daintily finished,Saira pushed the tea mug across the table to her.
“There, feeling somewhat better?” She asked with truesympathy. Saira had known hunger and the fear of captivity herself at one time.
“Yes, thank you,” Abigail replied. “I can’t say when I’veeaten a more delicious soup.” Abigail picked up the mug with now steady hands.She looked around the cabin. Everything she had seen so far was clean and verytidy, even the corridors. That didn’t mean anything of course. Perhaps theywere simply tidy bloodthirsty killers.
The cabin itself seemed an eclectic mix of souvenirs from faroff places. Little statues of strange gods stood over a pigeon−holedsection of wall that doubtless held maps, next to a bookcase full of oldvolumes. The chairs were of a light cane weave, quite comfortable, althoughoddly enough bolted in place on the floor.
Abigail thought to herself, if she could get the other womantalking, maybe she could better ascertain her situation. That the crew of theship were capable of violence was clear. Who were they? What did they intendwith her?
“I hadn’t realized that an airship like this would have somuch room inside it,” Abagail remarked. Saira sipped her own tea, all the whileextending her senses to read the woman’s aura for signs of any deception. Shewas becoming more deeply in rapport.
“Well,” she said, “the Dancer is plenty roomy, not as roomyas a merchant ship, where people have their families, or a dreadnought wherethere’s a mile or more of space. Story is that she was originally somewarlord’s toy, more ground support frigate than cruiser really, for all thatshe is as big as one. She carries no heavy broadsides you see?” here Sairasmiled evilly. “That has led more than one raider to underestimate us.”
“I see,” Abigail remarked. The other woman looked to be abouther age, yet she spoke much as she had heard the old veterans talking in thepubs. “You sound as if you know ships well. What exactly do you do aboard, if Imay ask? I assume that you don’t fight all the time.”
“Of course, you may ask, I’m the ships Arms-Master.” Sairasmiled at her, feeling their auras touching. A few more sentences and she wouldbe attuned enough to know if the Englishwoman lied when she spoke, without theBrit ever being aware of Saira’s ability.
“I’m sorry,” Abigail frowned, “but I’m afraid I don’t knowwhat that means.”
“It means that I am the chief fighter, so, yes, I ‘fight allthe time’ as you say.” Seeing Abigail’s surprise, Saira laughed. “I lead thosewho go on boarding raids such as we did today, as well as oversee those who manthe ship’s weapons. I also train everyone in how to fight should it be needed.Not everyone aboard drops down the hatch, but they all need to be goodfighters. ”
“I see,” Abigail said wonderingly. “How did you come by sucha profession?” She had met a few women Army and Navy officers before, but thissmall woman was nothing like them.
Saira shrugged in such a way that Abigail was momentarilyreminded that beneath the open rubber tunic, the woman was practically halfnaked. Confound it, she needed to focus on what she said next, not ogle like aschoolboy.
“My mother’s people are all warriors.” Saira was aware of theEnglishwoman being aware of her. When auras touched, body spoke to body evenwhen one of them did not know what was happening. “I learned much there. My father’sbrother taught me more,” she explained. “He took over one of the great cargoships at the end of the war as a merchant. I lived aboard her for a time. WhenI went my own way, I found theDancer. She’s a good ship. Will HuntingOwl is the best Captain I have ever seen.”
“I see,” Abigail said. She took another sip of tea. The womancertainly had apresencefor lack of a better word. Still her voice rang true.She’d heard of the Alliance of Nations giving freighter ships to crews afterthe war as a way to stimulate world trade as part of the Reconstruction. Theplanet had been so devastated by the Invaders that anything that would help thesurvivors was done. Back home at Oxford, they still ate fruit and vegetablesgrown in Spain and North Africa. There simply wasn’t enough un-blighted landaround. These and other products were delivered by the giant air freighters.However, this ship was clearly no freighter. She startled as a chime soundedthe overhead speaker. A woman’s bright voice spoke cryptic instructions in aBritish boarding school accent.
“That will be the signal that we are getting underway,” Sairaexplained.
“Forgive me, while I am grateful for you removing me fromthat horrid situation, I must ask.” Abigail wet her lips. “Are you pirates?More to the point, what are your intentions towards me?” Saira sensed thewoman’s fear being controlled by a strong determination to not be controlled byanother. She eyed her with a new respect. This was no fainting lady, for allthat she was British.
“Truly, we are not pirates,” Saira answered her seriously. “Iforgive you that you do not know what an insult your question is, though youwould not be the first to make it. No, we are a Free Airship,” she said withpride.
“It means that we are beholden to no one,” Saira continued,seeing Abigail’s incomprehension. “We are flagged out of the Freeport ofSeattle, on the other side of the Pacific. Many free airships are merchants;some are like us, armed fighters. We do jobs that armed ships do. We run smallspecial cargoes, guard unarmed ships, patrol the smaller trade routes wherethere’s trouble and such. The jobs your big shiny air navies can’t be botheredwith. We do have warrants to hunt and kill pirates where we find them.” Saira’ssmile now held nothing of its earlier merriment. And we do kill them. Liketoday.”
“So then, you are, ah, privateers?” Abigail asked interested,despite the blood−thirsty sentiment. She knew that the Freeports were oneof the more controversial provisions of the Gibraltar Treaty. The idea had beento create air and sea ports around the world that would be internationalterritory with no taxes or restrictions. The notion had been that they wouldalso stimulate world trade. What they turned out to be, in practice, was quitedifferent. Most of Mrs. McDougal’s more lurid serials took place in Freeports.Mrs. M had been Abigail’s nanny and the Hadley’s housekeeper since Abigail wasquite young. Right then Abigail missed her something fierce.
“I have heard that term used by some,” Saira allowed. “Wefight when we must or when we are paid to.” Saira smiled again, “And we arevery well paid. We are answerable to the Freeport council where we are flagged.Pirates steal what they want, kill who they want, and enslave the rest formoney. We are not like that!” Saira said forcefully.
“As for our intentions, that is up to Cap’n Will,” Sairacontinued. “I can promise you that none aboard will touch you with lasciviousintention without you wanting them to, and that we will get you somewhere moreor less safe.” She looked at Abigail, listening with more than her ears. “Nowthen, how is it that a Lady such as you came to be in such a way?”
“Actually,” Will said from the doorway, “I was going to askthe same thing.” He walked in to the cabin with steaming mug, and sat downbehind the battered desk. The man grinned at her broadly, then placed his feetup on the desk, boots and all. Abigail found this familiarity verydisconcerting. He looked from one woman to the next “Please go on, LadyHadley.”
Abigail found that she was flustered again by his regard,which was most out of character for her. This Captain Hunting Owl had a strongpresence of his own. Certainly there was an animal sensuality about him mixedwith a sense of danger. But there was more than that. There was such an air ofauthority that you simply had to pay attention to him when he entered a room. Shewondered what the protocols was here. She didn’t see Saira standing when heentered, as she’d seen the crew do when the captain had entered a room on herair flight from Britain. Then there was this Captain’s casual familiarity. Whileshe dithered over what was the correct thing to say, she sipped her tea. Thesilence lengthened. Finally, Will appeared to take pity on her.
“Suppose I start,” he said, still sounding very genial. “Doyou know where your servants are?”
“Actually there aren’t any servants.” Abigail took a breath.“I am traveling on my own.” She hesitated, knowing now how foolish she hadbeen, and how she would sound. Will raised an eyebrow at that, but made noremark. He nodded at her to go on.
“Well, “Abigail said somewhat defensively, “Really, it shouldnotmatter that I am a woman traveling alone should it? It is the 1890’safter all. You see, I was on my way to meet with my father who is engaged inresearch in China. We are, in fact, to meet in Hong Kong.”
“Pardon me,” Will asked around his mug. “Who is your fatherexactly?”
“Lord Robert Hadley, also of the Royal Order of Scholars,”She replied. “He contacted me to join him, as I believe I mentioned.” Abigail’shands clutched tightly to her tea mug. “In the course of my travels, I met whatI thought at the time was a British gentleman named Thaddeus Kane. I learnedthat he certainly was not one. Mr. Kane offered to succor me on the last of myjourney from Bombay to Hong Kong by offering me passage on what he claimed wasone of his ships.”
“This Kane said he was a shipper, and you were in luck as hehad a ship sailing that night.” Will said dryly. “Once you were on board, heoffered you something to drink. When you woke up, you found that you were notjust a guest.” Abigail looked at him in wonder.
“Yes, that is exactly what happened! How did you know?” Shedemanded.
“He didn’t,” said Saira gently, “It is an old slavers trick.What they call a ‘Shanghai’.”
“Yes!” Abigail exclaimed, “The large Chinese man saidsomething like that when I awoke.”
“That would be Hu Fan?” Will asked.
“Yes, that was his name,” Abigail said, visibly suppressing ashudder. “He told me that he was the captain of the ship, and I had been‘shanghaied.’”
“So, how is it that you came to be in the strong room?” Willwondered, “Seems a funny place to put you.” Abigail knew that she was blushingnow, and cursed inwardly. Her fair skin did that to her every time.
“Well, I’m afraid that I have something of a temper attimes,” she explained, keeping her eyes on the wall behind Saira. “When he saidthat I was a captive, and leered over me, I’m afraid that I attacked him, and,”here she paused to drink her tea. “I, ahem, bit off part of his, his ear,” shesaid hesitantly.
Both Saira and Will went very still at this surprisingrevelation. Then Saira began what Abigail thought was a mostly girlishgiggling, which seemed very out of place given her martial attire. She wasstill even covered in splashes of blood. Saira was now laughing so hard, shewas gasping.
“Oh Shiva!” she exclaimed between whoops, “You’d best becareful, Cap’n, she has a temper!”
“I am sorry,” Abigail said coldly, “I fail to see what isremotely amusing about this.”
“Lady Hadley,” Will begin slowly. “Hu Fan was a vicious coldkiller and a slaver. The last time we tangled, he threatened to flay a womanalive just to keep us at a distance from him. He later began to shove hiscargo, which was living men, women, and children overboard just so he couldhave his ship go faster.” Abigail’s face went from red to ghostly pale as theimplications began to sink in.
“My god,” she whispered.
“Aiya,” Will nodded.” So far as I know, you’re the onlyperson I’ve heard of to do Hu Fan bodily harm and live to tell of it.” Hegrinned at her like a boy, then drained his mug.
“Well, second person now,” he said with a satisfied air.“After I put a bullet through his head.”
“Too good for him, Cap’n,” Saira said intensely, still wipingher eyes from laughing.
“Well, I was a might rushed you could say,” Will explained.He turned back to Abigail “So, Lady Hadley, you are a very lucky woman, I’mthinking. “ He put down his mug on the desk, uncurling his legs to have hisfeet hit the floor.
“So, what are you a Scholar of?” he asked. “Don’t you typesall have areas that you specialize in?”
“Please, call me Abigail, Captain, as I do owe you a debt ofgratitude.” She requested, coming to a quick decision. She may as well try tomake allies here. At least, they seemed like friendly people, if not exactlycivilized. “Titles are given to most anyone who can do their sums these days,”she explained easily, “As you know, when Her Majesty created the Order ofScholars after the War, it was designed not only to be a bulwark of the NewScience against the return of the Invaders but to be a revival of the Britisharistocracy.” She waved a hand gracefully. “Most who graduate from Oxfordbecome titled these days. As to my studies, they lie in the areas of ElectricEnergetics, both theoretical and applied.”
“You mean like what makes Tesla engines run and such?” Sairaasked innocently. Tesla’s inventions had not only contributed to the salvationof humanity from the Invaders, but formed the cornerstone of much of the modernworld. Abigail smiled at her.
“Precisely!” She exclaimed. “Although more towards the ‘andsuch’ of those studies. There is so much just in this field that is wonderful,”she stopped herself from continuing with an effort, and returned her hands toher lap. “But I do not mean to allow my enthusiasms to run away there.” Shesaid. Lady Hadley turned back to Will.
“I truly do have to reach Hong Kong though, Captain,” Abigailsaid. “I cannot offer you much in the way of remuneration immediately, but I dopromise that I shall see you compensated. That is, if you can get me tosomewhere that I might continue on my way easily.” Will glanced at Saira. The Arms-Masterturned both hands palm up, their secret signal that Saira thought they weretelling only the truth.
“I think that she is good Cap’n,” Saira said. “Hells, afterthat story about Hu Fan, I would lend her my underwear!”
Will nodded in decision. He’d never known Saira to be wrongyet about someone she was reading. Still, there was her father’s poking aroundin Hong Kong to consider. Maybe the daughter showing up would distract the oldman from whatever he was doing in the Asian underground. It never hurt to haveanother aristocrat think well of you. He looked at Abigail and grinned again.
“Well, Lady…Abigail,” he caught himself, remembering herwishes about how she wanted to be addressed. “It seems that you really are onthe good side of some spirits somewhere. So happens that we’ve got a cargo thatwe have to deliver to Hong Kong right quickly.Dancermay not be whatyou’re used to, but we can have you in Hong Kong in seven or eight days ifyou’re of a mind.” He grinned his most boyish grin at her, “and for tellingthat story about Hu Fan, there’ll be no charge either.”
Abigail breathed a sigh of relief. She could see no reasonfor him to lie to her. After all, if his intentions were bad, there was verylittle she could do to stop him. Besides she didn’t feel that Saira wouldsupport such intentions. There was something about Saira that gave Abigail theimpression that Abigail knew her character well, even on such shortacquaintance. She smiled back at him.
“Thank you, Captain,” she replied. “I assure you that youraccommodations will most certainly be superior to what I have experienced oflate.” Will and Saira smiled at this, as the light tube overhead chose thatmoment to flicker. At the same moment, the Bridge talker Naomi’s voice soundedthrough the grill set in Wills desk summoning Will to the engine room.
“Sounds like I’d best go see what Devi has to say,” Willstood up quickly and began moving towards the doorway.
“If you are having Tesla problems, Captain, it is possiblethat I may be able to assist. It is my area of specialty as you say.” Abigailpointed out mildly. Will turned and looked at her.
“Well, that’s right kind of you, Abigail,” Will said mildly.“But Devi is as good as they come. She’s kept this crate in the air for yearsnow.” He then turned to Saira, “You willing to take her on?” Saira looked at Abigailthen back at Will.
“Sure, Cap’n,” She said easily. “I got her.” Will nodded.
“Put her in the cabin next to yours then,” Will ordered.“Anyone have a problem, they can talk to me about it. Can you parcel out yourduties for a couple of days while our guest gets settled in?”
Saira considered for a moment. “I still want to run the afteraction review. Besides that though, Tikku can run the drills, and Sebastian cansee to post-action maintenance to the ship’s guns.” Will nodded in agreement.
“I’ll let Rogers know for the roster, then,” he saiddecisively. “Consider yourself off standard for a bit.”
“Aiya, Cap’n Will,” Saira grinned.She was sure the Englishwoman was no threat, but wouldn’t argue the point, evenif she wasn’t sitting across from her. “Can I draw double rum rations? Have toentertain her and all that.” Will shook his head in mock sorrow at his Arms-Master’ssally. He turned to Abigail. “Watch yourself with this one, Lady Hadley. She isa sorceressof no small ability, and will catch you out with hercharms.”
“Like you, Cap’n?” Saira teased.
“I am a warrior of Wovoka, and immune to your wiles,” he shotback with a grin, “and the answer to your request is no,” he said firmly. “LadyHadley can draw the same ration as everyone else, without any help.” He lookedup, as the light tube flickered again. He gave them both a little courtly bowthat somehow didn’t seem out of place to Abigail.
“Abigail, I’ll leave you with Saira now, who really will seeyou safe and settled. I will talk to you both later.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Abigail began to say, only to see Willalready moving out the doorway.
“You only think so, Cap’n! “ Saira called to his back, andlaughed as he made a warding gesture with his hand over his shoulder at her. Abigailblinked at Saira’s comments.
“Are you always so…informal?” she asked the Arms-Master.Saira rose from the cabin chair where she was sitting. Abigail rose andfollowed her as they moved towards the doorway.
“You almost sound like Mr. Rogers, our First Officer,” Sairalooked at her smiling. “He’s British too, says that I lack ‘proper decorum’.”She struck a much exaggerated pose with her nose in the air that almost made Abigaillaugh out loud. Saira then dropped the pose, and waved her hands dismissively.“We do not generally bother with a lot of that ‘yes sir, may I scratch myselfsir’ sort of thing onDancer,” she said. “Oh a bit, but only when itmatters though. We have not offended you already have we?” Saira paused to lookat her. Abigail smiled back at her as they stood by the door.
“Actually, I must say that I find it rather refreshing,” Abigailreplied. “I have little patience for that sort of thing myself.”
“Well, we will do our best to refresh the hell out of youthen, Abigail.” Saira grinned at her. Her hand rested on the door handle.“Shall we get you settled in then? We will have to be quiet and quick passingthrough the bridge, but it is the easiest path to your berth.” Abigail noddedfor her to continue.
“Lead on,” Abigail said with a nod. Saira opened the door. Togetherthe two tip-toed across the bridge, keeping to one wall. Mr. Rogers regardedthem for a moment from his station near the map table, then turned back to whathe was doing without speaking to them. Once beyond the large steel doors thatseparated the bridge from the main corridor, Saira turned to Abigail and spokesoftly.
“That was the bridge, where the ship is run from,” sheexplained. “Never enter the bridge, the engine room, or the armory withoutpermission. It is very much not allowed, unless you have business there.” Abigailnodded at this solemnly. Saira smiled at the Scholar.
“It is not as if you will have anything to do with therunning of the ship.” She paused. After we get you settled, perhaps you mightwant to take a bath?” Abigail’s eyes went wide at this offer, as she followedthe dark skinned woman down the corridor. The few people she passed flattenedthemselves against the wall. Abigail caught flashes of annoyance on some of thefaces, but taking her cue from Saira, ignored them.
“You have the means for a bath?” She inquired in amazement.Saira nodded.
“Actually,” the Arms-Master replied, “we have a common bathwith both hot and cold tubs sunk into the floor. It is part of the ballastsystem. I told you this used to be some warlords toy, yes? Well, apparently, hefelt it important for his crew to be clean. Cap’n is the same way. One of thethings he’s insistent on actually.” Saira gave her a sideways glance. “Coursewhen I say ‘common’ I mean that we all share it together at the same time, boysand girls alike.”
Abigail had read of such things being done before, butdespite her view of herself as a modern enlightened woman, the ideawas…unsettling. She had shared such activities only with a couple of verydaring lovers. To cover her adjustment to the idea, she looked at around thecorridor they were traveling. The walls were panels of a dark wood, the floor muchthe same, along the corners of the ceiling ran long light tubes that bathed thecorridor in bright light. Her noise caught the faint scent of some spice in theair.
What caught her eye were the intricate carvings that ranalong the join between floor and wall, wall and ceiling. Occasionally a wholewall panel had been carved into a scene. Though no artist, she could recognizethat they were done with great skill. One of a small leaping deer that repeateddown along the corridor seemed very lifelike.
“What incredible carvings,” Abigail said, pointing. “They arebeautiful.”
“Yes, they are,” Saira said indifferently. “Someof the crew whittle in their free time.” The light tube above their headsdimmed to near darkness and after a long pause, brightened again.
“Vishnu’s balls,” Saira breathed, looking up.
“I take it this does not happen often?” Abigail asked. Sairashook her head.
“Never,” the other woman said. Abigail stopped suddenly inthe corridor, placing her hands on her hips.
“Take me to your engine room,” she said abruptly in a tonethat was not used to being argued with. She was after all a British Aristocratand it was time she acted like one. Saira stopped with her, then mirrored Abigailby putting her hands on her hips as well. She frowned at the Scholar.
“Abigail, I do not think that is a really good idea,” Sairasaid slowly. “Devi, our engineer, does not like outsiders there. Hell, she doesnot like most crew inherengine room.” Abigail was clearly not to bemoved.
“I believe I understand,” she said implacably. “I do notenjoy others in my laboratory. But it appears something is occurring with theTesla Engines, and this whole ship could be in danger.” She changed her tone,raising a hand in supplication, “Truly, Saira, this is what I have spent mywhole life in the study of, please let me help.”
Saira had opened her spirit such she was aware that not onlywas the English woman speaking what she felt to be true, but thatthiswas a moment where destinies converged. It wasn’t often that she felt destinytapping her on the shoulder, but this was one of them. The Spirits were sayingthat the Englishwoman was right. When the Spirits spoke it was as well that shelistened. This was also likely going to get her in a lot of trouble with anynumber of people though. She sighed.
“Alright,” she said wearily. “But you get to deal with Deviwanting to have us beheaded.” She looked down at Abigail’s skirts and bustle,then back up to her face. “Can you even climb a ladder in all that?” LadyHadley straightened up.
“I can go where ever you lead,” Abigail replied stoutly.Saira tried very hard not to let her skepticism show.
“Alright then,” she pointed ahead. “We go down the ladder offto the left.”
Saira opened a hatch set in the floor in a small alcove justoff the corridor. She yelled down it her voice sounding as if it were goingdown a well.
“Ware! She shouted, “Red! I say again. Red Pass!” She lookedup at Abigail. “If you ever hear someone shout that move out of their wayquickly. It means that they are moving in an emergency to save the ship.” Shegestured down the hatchway. “Follow me, and keep up.” The Arms-Master went downthe ladder like grease. Abigail swallowed, and gathered her skirts to follow.She had difficulty getting the folds through the narrow opening but persevered.It wouldn’t do to show her private person to everyone as they went by, shethought to herself.
“Are you coming?” Saira’s voice drifted up impatiently.
When they finally entered the engine ready room, thediscordant bone deep hum of a distressed Tesla engine made hearing next toimpossible. The sound came from behind the doors marked ‘Warning! No ferrousmetal beyond this point!’ Despite the sound, Abigail saw the Captain talking toa short Hindi looking woman in the rubber apron and gloves of an electricworker. With the arm waving and gestures the woman made, it was clear thatthere was some contention between the two. As they approached, Abigail couldhear the woman shouting over the engines.
“And I tell you that we cannot afford to keep all fourrunning! The spikes are getting too great to compensate! Would you rather seeHong Kong in half a month, or an engine room full of melted slag? You cannothave both!” the woman must have seen them approach out of the corner of her eyefor she whipped around, confronting Saira. “Who is this? Get away with you!Now, or I’ll have you shot! I’ll have you both shot!”
“Abigail, Lady Hadley, ROS, Electric Energetics!” Abigailshouted. “How great is your current differential?” she screamed loudly to beheard over the racket.
“I do not care if you are the Queen Mother!” The womanshouted back, “You will,” she paused, leaning closer to Abigail. “Did you say,Abigail Hadley? Not the same one who wrote ‘Polychrome Transducers as a StepMethod’ in Oxford Engineering?’
“Yes, that was me!” Abigail shouted back. The older womanstraightened up.
“That was not half bad for a theory banger!” She shouted inapproval. “Our differential is swinging between 40 and 250 right now. It’s beenincreasing by 20 each swing! The bearings on number four are slipping toomuch!”
“Wait!” Will shouted, looking between them. “You know her Devi?”Devi turned on him.
“If she is who she says she is, yes!” Devi shouted. “This isthe woman you picked up from the fight? Why did you not tell me?” Will wavedhis hands at her.
“There hasn’t been time!” he shouted back. Abigail shoutedover them both, grabbing Devi’s attention.
“Do you have a variable light clock?” She shouted. Devi wavedher hands in negation.
“No!” She shouted back, “Does this look like a tofflaboratory? No! And why should we need one? It is the bearings I tell you! Weslow the engine down and take it offline!”
“No!” Abigail shouted over the noise, “It could be resonanceskip instead! You can’t slow her without risking a catastrophic cascade!” Devilooked suddenly very grim.
“Resonance skip?” She shouted back. “Impossible!”
“Damn!” Abigail said. “I had a clock with me on the ship!It’s probably burned up and on the ocean floor by now!”
“Hold on here!” Will shouted. “Everybody,” he pointed,“hallway, now!” They all trooped out, and when the door closed, the noisemercifully dampened.
“Now,” Will spoke into the relative quiet, “Even I know thatthis skip resonance thing can be real bad. Is there any chance that Hadley hereis right, Devi?” The Brahman looked uncomfortably at Abigail.
“Well, it is possible,” the Engineer admitted, finally.“Unlikely, but possible.”
“Possible?” Will raised an eyebrow, “We need better thanthat, Devi.” The engineer scowled at him and raised her hands in negation. Heturned towards Abigail, “And you say that you have a gizmo that could fixthis?”
“No,” Abigail said exasperatedly. “I had an instrument thatcould determine how to fix it. Unfortunately, it was on the ship in my instrumenttrunk!”
Will held up a hand, cutting off her next comment. He turnedto Saira and whispered in her ear. Saira looked at him, then the others, andran off down the corridor.
Will turned back to the two of them. “Lady Abigail Hadley,”he continued, “May I present my Chief Engineer, Devi Neelam, the best one damnengineer on three continents. Devi, you appear to already know our guest.”
Abigail nodded her head at Devi, “Chief Engineer Neelam. Iapologize for my unseemly entrance. I would not have presumed had I not thoughtit of serious import.” Devi appeared somewhat mollified by this.
“I understand, Lady Hadley,” Devi said. “Sure it is that ifyou are right, then all is proper. It is true that we have not had time to do athorough resonance calibration in some time. But how can we determine which ofus is right in this? We must surely act quickly. This is not a scholarly debatewe can be having.”
“I know,” Abigail frowned in thought. Hesitantly, sheventured, “There is another way to measure the resonant harmony of the fourengines, but it will mean removing the outer casings, which has its owndangers.” Devi’s face held amazement upon hearing this.
“Yes, I would think so!” She exclaimed. “You cannot bethinking what I think you are thinking.”
“I can do it myself with some help with the casings,” Abigailreplied. “As you say, there isn’t a lot of time here.”
Saira came running back up the corridor, followed by a largeman laboring with a trunk.
“That is my equipment trunk!’ Abigail exclaimed, as the manset it down between them. She turned on Will, “you didn’t tell me you’d rescuedit as well,” she said accusingly.
“I’m not in the habit of letting unknown castaways haveequipment that I can’t understand loose onDancer,” the Captainexplained. “I was going to have Devi check it out first.”
Abigail flung herself onto her knees, and worked the lock.She quickly rifled through the trunk and pulled up an intricate device in bothhands. “Light clock,” she held it up for Devi’s inspection, who nodded approvingly.Getting to her feet, Abigail said to her, “Do you have a spare set ofinsulating gloves? “
“Of course,” Devi replied. “I have only heard of thistechnique though. Can you do it on ship-sized Teslas?” Abigail gave a veryunladylike snort.
“I have used this on two thousand rated boxes,” she replied.“I will need help with your viewing ports though, and we will need to checkeach one.”
“Of course,” the older woman nodded in understanding. “Let usget to it then,” Devi turned to reenter the engine room. Her head turned tolook over her shoulder at the British Scholar.
“You are not proposing to enter my engine room like that, Ihope,” she observed.
“Of course not, Chief Neelam!” Abigail exclaimed. She beganquickly removing her hair pins, her long, red hair came down in tumble. Shehanded them to Saira, who looked at her in surprise.
“I cannot risk ferrous metal in the engine room. Abigailexplained, “You know, pins, eyelets, and such”. She dropped her bustle and bentto unlace her boots, which she kicked off. She stood again, unbuttoning herdress. “Help me please,” she said quickly to Saira. Saira grabbed her overdressand helped pull it up over her head, then quickly undid her corset. Abigail,standing now in only her chemise and stockings started for the engine room.
“Wait,” Will said. He stood un-moving in the hallway with hisarms crossed. Devi turned back to him.
“There is no time for suspicions now Captain,” Devi said. “Beassured that I will be watching that she does not blow us all up,” the engineerfinished exasperatedly. Will flung up his hands in surrender towards his chiefengineer.
“Alright,” he allowed, “but Saira goes in there too to watchher also.” The lights dimmed again, and they all looked up.
“Fine,” Devi snapped quickly. She addressed Saira, “You standwhere I tell you, and do nothing unless I tell you.” She looked over Saira’srubber suit and knives with disdain. “Get shed of any metal. That includesthose bloody big pig-stickers of yours, and you do not wear that bloody suit inmy clean engine room!” Saira nodded and without saying a word, dropped herweapons belt. Devi turned back to Will. “You would help best by reducing us toidle speed, and keeping our altitude level.”
“Got it,” Will turned and started at a run towards thebridge. Abigail turned to the engineer.
“While I appreciate that we need to remain level, reducingthe energy through−put will not have a major effect what we are about todo,” she said, puzzled.
“I know,” Devi replied. “But otherwise, he will be down here andin our way. It is best to always give a captain something to do, and elsewhereif at all possible. They need to feel useful, you see.”
“Oh,” Abigail replied in a small voice. Devi opened the door,and the calliope of noise flooding the corridor.
“Now, young Scholar,” the Engineer shouted over the din,” letus do it!”
Upper corridors, Wind Dancer
Some hours later, Saira guided a weary Abigail up to thedeck where their cabins were. Saira had been fascinated watching Devi and LadyHadley work. To be sure, she thought approvingly, the English woman was nostickler for graces. She had gotten her hands dirty with the rest of them, andmore than once had stepped under an arch of lightning spitting between two ofthe tall engines, with no regard for her own safety.
She would make an adjustment that stopped the arch or made itflow differently. It was like watching a story of ancient magicians chainingthe sky demons, and made as much sense as well. Finally, the horrible noise hadcalmed to a dim hum, and as they conferred over gauges and dials, the two womenhad expressed satisfaction they had gotten the problem ‘temporarily resolved’.Devi had told Saira to take Abigail, who was swaying with exhaustion, to bunkout for a watch at least. Despite her protests, she’d allowed Saira to lead herout of the engine room.
“Here we are,” Saira said, opening a door. Abigail stood in asmall room barely wider than the bed, and looked around dully.
“Like we said,” Saira went on, “It is not much. The bed willdo, and there’s a pot under it. Light switch there, and emergency light there.”Saira pointed to places on the walls.
“It is fine,” Abigail mumbled. She turned to Saira. “You willwake me, won’t you? Those copper inducers really need replacing. No one hasused those for years! Your engineer is a miracle worker you know.” She yawned,“Oh, pardon me.”
“Yes Lady Hadley,” Saira grinned at her. “I promise to wakeyou. You are right, Devi knows her business, but then I am seeing that you dotoo.”
“Call me Abigail,” the other woman said with a hand wave, andanother yawn.
“Alright Abigail,” Saira replied easily. “But now you shouldlay down for a bit, aiya? Devi will have words, if you show up too tired tostand.”
“Yes, I suppose so, at that,” Abigail smiled wanly. “She isquite formidable.”
“That is one way of expressing it,” Saira rolled her eyes.“Do you need anything?”
“No, I will just sit for a minute if you don’t mind.”Matching action to words, Lady Hadley settled on the edge of the bed.
“All right then,” Saira replied. “I am right next door if youneed anything.” She paused, “Do not try and make your way back there withoutme, hear?” Abigail waved the comment off.
“I would not dream of trying,” she assured the Arms-Master.
“Well, rest well then.” Saira closed the door.
Abigail looked around the bare walls, and considered removingher now even filthier chemise. She tested the pallet and found it comfortable.At least it was more comfortable than the storage room had been. Perhaps shewould just lie back for a moment first.
There was a noise. Abigail groggily tried to recognize whatit was. Was it that Mrs. McDougall, the housekeeper, beating the rugs? No, itwas far too loud for that. What then? Suddenly, she remembered everything, theletter from her father, the betrayal, the rescue. She came awake just as thedoor opened. She opened her eyes to find Saira standing over her.
“Oi,” Saira said smiling down at her, “You are a hard one towake! Do not tell me you slept in your chemise?”
Abigail slowly sat up. Yes, it appeared that she had donejust that. Fuzzily, she looked up at the smiling Hindu woman.
“Must you be so bloody cheerful?” Abigail growled. “What timeis it?”
“It’s just now three bells into day watch,” Saira replied.“You have slept much around the clock. Here,” she held out a steaming mug oftea. Abigail grabbed it and inhaled the steam rising from it.
“Ah, you may indeed be my savior after all,” she sipped thehot tea. It was full of spices that she could not name, sweet and very strong.Saira laughed again.
“Well, if you would sell your soul so cheaply,” she repliedgaily, “who am I to refuse?”
“You say that I’ve slept an entire day?” Abigail started totry to stand, tea mug in one hand. The Teslas need those new inserts! You weresupposed to wake me!” She felt woozy and sat back down again hard. Saira heldout her hands, to help her steady herself, nearly spilling the tea in theprocess.
“Hold on!” Saira said to her,“Devi said to let you sleep, and to tell you that the ‘inserts’, whatever thoseare, will be waiting for you when you get to the engine room. Cap’n Will says‘much obliged for your help’, and that you are to clean up and have breakfast,on his orders. Then, if you would be so kind, he requests that you help Devi. Ihave found you some other clothes to wear, and will take you to the baths, thenfood, as soon as you have finished your tea.”
“Oh, “Abigail replied, feeling somewhat foolish. Saira sat onthe edge of the bed silently while she drank. Finishing the tea, she felt lessgrouchy, and looked up at Saira.
“Thank you,” she said, “I can be somewhat difficult when Ifirst wake. My apologies.”
“None needed, I assure you!” Saira said reassuringly. “Myuncle, now there was a man difficult to wake,” she remarked. “His firstresponse was to throw sharp knives at you for waking him!”
“What did you do?” Abigail said.
“Learned to duck,” Saira’s face broke into a big smile. Abigailfound this incredibly amusing for some reason and started laughing. She laughedso hard that tears started down her face as she rocked, before she got herselfback under control.
“Oh, my, “she gasped, looking embarrassed. “I can’t rememberwhen I last laughed so hard. I am not sure what came over me.”
“The wise ones say that laughter is one of the sovereignremedies for the soul,” Saira replied still smiling. ‘I am glad to see you so.”
“Thank you for that,” Abigail said wiping her eyes. “Youmentioned something about a bath and food?” She looked down at her chemise. “Isuppose that I should dress. It would not do to wonder about the shiphalf-naked.” Saira looked at her in puzzlement.
“I do not see that you are even half-naked.” She observed.“And I should remind you that you have already wandered the ship, dressed asyou are. I have brought an assortment of clothing for you if you wish it.” Sheheld up a pair of pants.
“Oh, but I couldn’t wear that,” Lady Hadley protested, “itshows off my legs!” Saira cocked her head to one side to stare at her.
“And how would it not?” she asked. “I wear them. Would yourather climb a ladder with the next person looking up your backside?”
“Oh well,” Abigail replied flustered. “That was necessarybefore, and you look very proper and…and martial.” She gulped her tea, refusingto meet Saira’s eye.
“No one was really looking on the ladders were they?” Abigailasked somewhat plaintively. Saira regarded her solemnly.
“I did not pay attention,” the Arms-Master said dryly. “I amcertain that no one had a shocking revelation upon seeing something new if theydid so.” Abigail grimaced at this and drained her tea mug.
“Right you are,” she said stoutly. “Well, I can do this ifyou can stand to be seen with me.” Saira smiled at her.
“That is the spirit!” Saira exclaimed. She picked up theother clothes. “I shall bring these along to change into after the bath then.”Abigail nodded at her, if not enthusiastically than at least determinedly. She stoodup.
“Lead on then!” she said.
Making their way down the corridors, Abigail was pleasantlysurprised to find that they did not meet anyone as she walked in her underwear.They did not, thankfully, climb any ladders, and soon found themselves in frontof a pair of large redwood and brass doors.
Abigail stopped, her heart suddenly pounding. She rememberedwhat Saira had said before. “Communal baths?” she said involuntarily. Sherealized that she had been running around the ship in just her chemise and stockings,but this seemed different somehow.